The Audacity of White Men

In the wake of what will be remembered as the most polarizing, vitriolic presidential election since Reconstruction, various journalists published different voter profiles. The collective white working class rationale was thoroughly (perhaps exhaustively) detailed. The Latin@ vote was (conversely perhaps not thoroughly enough) discussed in pieces like “Here’s What Happened With The Latino Vote.” Black non-voters in a specific Milwaukee neighborhood were interviewed about their civic apathy. Even those who look upon qualities like prosperity and tolerance as, and I do quote, “shit” received a slice of the spotlight.

While the 2016 presidential election was truly unprecedented, voter profiles are fairly common. During both the 2008 and 2012 races—elections that were perhaps equally as historic as 2016’s, albeit from a polarly opposite perspective—Black voters, who turned out in droves, were met with a litany of pieces that supposedly explained their rationale. Author Kevin Jackson even went on Fox News to proclaim to conservative anchor Megyn Kelly that Black voters supported President Obama not because of his extensive credentials or qualifications, but because he was Black. Shallow dives into the supposed collective conscious of the Black American voter were so ubiquitous in 2012, comedian Chris Rock addressed it in his HBO special, “Kill The Messenger”:

“This whole election is so weird, just the way they cover it. Everything’s so racial, racial, racial… And the crazy thing is, whenever white people vote for Barack Obama—which is a lot of the time—they go, ‘well you know, they listened to the issues, and they felt Obama spoke to their issues. They went over the issues, they weighed the pros and cons, and they felt that Obama spoke to their issues.’ And whenever black people vote for Barack, they go, ‘Well they black, he black, so I guess that’s why.’ Like we don’t even have names on our ballots, it’s just scratch and sniff!”

I can proudly declare that in 2012, I did vote for President Obama because we share a racial identity. My rationale then, at 19, was that I would not have another chance to vote for a Black presidential candidate. For what it’s worth, I regret nothing.

More importantly, it is critical to properly identify the foundation of both Rock’s joke, and of race-based voter profiles. If we are to assume, erroneously or otherwise, that Black people voted for Barack Obama because of his Blackness, then we also must conclude white voters did the same in electing Donald Trump. While there were no people of color on the official presidential ballot (even including third-party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson), Republican candidate Donald Trump ran, and won, on a platform steeped in identity politics. The very same identity politics that white writers like Mark Lilla accused of causing Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat ultimately fueled Trump’s ascent. Despite his reluctant condemnation of white nationalists, it is undeniable that Trump’s platform, one that demonized everyone but similarly privileged white men, spoke to their interests specifically as white people.

That last piece is vital to appropriately understand the election, and how we relate to whiteness—and consequently Blackness—in general. Too often, we as a global people, allow whiteness to exist as the uninterrogated status quo. Unlike every other unprotected or semi-unprotected class of people, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight men, are allowed room to navigate the world free of ever having their identity politicized. But the sobering reality, as many learned for the first time exactly a month ago, is that white people are motivated by that very whiteness, those very same identity politics.

Even this year, as pundits focused on the “white working class,” the central issue that bound those voters was grounded in class, not race. “Economic anxiety,” not violent racism and xenophobia, ignited the white working class. It is then peculiar that no one could quite explain why economically anxious Black and Brown folk didn’t turn out in droves to vote for the candidate backed by the country’s self-proclaimed largest fraternal order of police and the Ku Klux Klan. So, at the risk of further centering the most privileged class of people in the world: let’s talk about white men.

As a disclaimer, I refer to white men as a social institution grounded in capitalist white supremacy, rather than every white man in the world. Even if it were possible to meet each and every one of you, I have no interest in doing so, and just as we can dissect the minds of people of color with a handful of anecdotal examples, the same can be true here.

Let’s face it: 2016 was not a great year for white men. For the sake of argument, focus on three that made large splashes in the news in just the last six months: Edgar Welch, Ryan Lochte, and of course, Donald Trump.

Edgar Welch, believing DC pizzeria Comet Ping Pong was the headquarters for an underground child sex trafficking ring, drove 350 miles from his home in North Carolina with a car full of guns, and opened fire inside the restaurant. For the sake of clarity, let’s gloss over the fact that a patently false conspiracy theory advanced by propaganda could have caused serious injury. Let’s even ignore the fact that the assault rifle Welch used shouldn’t be as accessible to, say, someone who would be so detached to believe that an underground child sex slavery ring would take place in a pizza shop and that Hillary Clinton was orchestrating the entire thing. Let’s focus on the fact that Welch felt that he alone was capable of investigating what, by his own admission, was a criminal operation spearheaded by one of the most powerful people on the planet. What kind of systems of power are at play that would allow someone like Welch to take the law into his own hands? Even when he arrived in Washington, he could have easily gone to the restaurant and simply called the police. After all, the police exist to help people and deter violence, right?

Only a few months earlier during the Brazil Summer Olympics, gold medalist and swimmer Ryan Lochte made front pages for all the wrong reasons. Lochte and his teammates went out for a night of partying, became incredibly drunk, got into an altercation with security at a gas station, and proceeded to destroy items and urinate on the premises. Rather than simply pay for the fines and apologize like an adult who actually has to face the consequences of his actions, Lochte fabricated a story in which he was robbed at gunpoint. Lochte even described himself as strangely calm, reporting that he uttered a glib “Whatever,” after a loaded revolver was (not) pointed at his head.

Somehow, despite his story’s shaky foundation, we all believed him. Because of course a place like Brazil is violent, of course Lochte and his teammates were only there to compete and have fun, and are incapable of wrongdoing, right? The global anti-blackness that drives the animosity toward Black people in the United States also permeates places like Brazil. Lochte, being the privileged and entitled white man that he is, knew that he could get away with it. And for a while, he did. Again, it is imperative to interrogate the role whiteness played in this situation. Had USA basketball players Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler, and Demarcus Cousins conducted themselves as Lochte and his teammates, would people like Billy Bush be as quick to sweep their behavior under the rug? Or, would the national conversation become a referendum on Black people? Would Breitbart have reported it in their “Black Crime” section? What does it say that the public intoxication of a young athlete is less believable than a hijacking that would have caused an international incident? Why were we so quick to buy into Lochte’s demonizing portrayal of Brazil, and would we have been as quick to believe him had this taken place in 2012 when the games were in London?

Even in an explainer piece by Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos, Lochte is still awarded a plethora of excuses for his behavior:

“The hubbub over Lochte potentially making up a weird story feels a little overblown — a lot out of nothing. If Lochte is lying but he and his friends didn’t get hurt and didn’t hurt anyone else in the process, then no harm, no foul, right?”

Sure, except for the part where he destroyed property, physically confronted the security officers, and lied about it. Other than that, it was “a lot out of nothing.” If we should hold Lochte accountable for his profound arrogance (and we definitely should) then we must also acknowledge that whiteness and masculinity are allowed to thrive and persist without ever being challenged, or interrogated. Ryan Lochte, a white man, merely lived up to the atrocious standards of accountability that white men have enjoyed since time immemorial.

And then, of course, there’s the 45th President-elect of the United States. There is so much to still dissect and digest from Trump’s win. Stories have already been printed about his various conflicts of interest as a businessman and future president, his fanning the flames of the alt-right rise, and his rampant, unapologetic sexism punctuated by a leaked Access Hollywood tape in which he told then-host Billy Bush that he had regularly groped and assaulted various women. But somehow in the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s campaign, his identity politics were hardly ever called into question. He was asked to disavow David Duke but was never properly challenged about his relationship with racism and white supremacy. Trump ignored critiques of his cabinet selection Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of Breitbart News and champion of white nationalists. It is not enough to say that Trump simply is ignoring the alarming views of his cabinet staff—including Michael Flynn, who believes, among other conspiracies, in the Comet Ping Pong Pizzagate conspiracy. We must also question what is it about him that allows him to feel comfortable in that willful ignorance? It certainly is not his “economic anxiety,” and considering the confidence he described in his grabbing of random women by their genitals, it would be naive to argue against his male ego playing a large role in how he conducts himself, his businesses, and ultimately, how he will run the country.

To be clear, not all white men are bad. Some, I assume, are good people. But they are not sending their best into the world. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. Most importantly, white men are allowed unfettered access to every institution and are allowed to fail and flounder without ever facing consequences. Any person of color who walked into Comet Ping Pong—located in a very wealthy, white part of northwest DC—would have been blessed to walk away alive, as Welch did. There are few women, white or otherwise, who would ever dream of running for President, despite lacking any qualifications and bringing absolutely no experience to the table. Hillary Clinton was perhaps the most qualified, experienced candidate to ever run for office, and she lost to someone who wasn’t even good at the job he had before. It is not just ignorant to assume that race and gender did not motivate the overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters, it also perpetuates the cancer that is white male entitlement.

It is not just the work for oppressed people of color to adopt. It is the responsibility of, specifically and especially, other white men to hold themselves accountable for the violence they commit. If people are serious about bringing unity to the country (as Trump has promised he can do) then we must first acknowledge who is being asked to unite. It is not enough to allow whiteness to exist as the norm, it must be treated as a race, just like any other. Until then, the unchecked recklessness of the white man will continue to reign supreme, leaving the rest of us undoing their destruction.