Beware of Angry White People
The pressure has been building for decades now, slowly but inexorably. The pent-up gases, the coiled springs, whatever metaphor you’d like to use… that which is suppressed must eventually find expression. Now and then, that expression will take the form of an explosion. That’s what concerns me.
White people are getting angrier. Until recently they haven’t felt free to express their anger. They had been inhibited and intimidated by potential accusations of racism, and nobody wanted to be branded with that scarlet label. But I think we’re starting to see some ominous cracks in the dam (to use yet another obvious but not altogether inappropriate metaphor).
Think I’m sounding a premature alarm? Just look around. Right now our most popular media pundits are Angry White People: veteran radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, madcap comedian-alarmist Glenn Beck, Harvard-educated anti-immigration populist Lou Dobbs, perennially outraged patriot Sean Hannity, and of course that “fair and balanced” oracle of the evening, Bill O’Reilly. Even more to the point, their audiences are Angry White People.
The loopy anti-Obama “Birther” movement is composed almost entirely of Angry White People. So was the constituency for that disarmingly adorable Alaskan upstart, former Gov. Sarah Palin. When African American eminento Henry Louis Gates, Jr., irrationally accused working-class Cambridge cop James Crowley of racism, you could feel the collective blood pressure of Angry White People soar into imminent-stroke territory.
I think Angry White People are at least partly justified in their Anger. Since the 1960s they’ve found themselves at the butt-end of virtually every argument about race. They’ve been castigated as overprivileged, insensitive oppressors. They’ve been ridiculed for their lack of cool and their inability to boogie. They’ve seen inner-city kids get the red-carpet treatment at Yale while their own progeny had to settle for Brickville State. They’ve watched as aggrieved minorities used the race card to defend O.J. Simpson and silence the opposition — while still managing to portray themselves as victims. And now, for the first time, a critical mass of Angry White People would appear to be saying “Enough.”
A few days ago I stumbled across an e-mail from the Sierra Club. Unlike most such e-mails, I actually took the time to read this one. Maybe it was because the headline proclaimed, “Yep, We’re Too White.”
The headline amused me at first. Turns out that the Sierra Club’s new Asian American president, Allison Chin, proudly affirmed her commitment to greater “diversity” within the century-old environmental organization. Well, hey, why not? This is 2009. Obama’s in the White House. I can’t expect the Sierra Club to consist entirely of brie-eating, NPR-listening white liberals in Birkenstocks, even if I’ve grown weary of our national tendency to sort everyone by racial affinity.
Then I clicked on the “Comments” link. Whoosh! Talk about explosions! Angry White Sierra Clubbers had festooned the message board with Angry White Invective, of which I’ll provide just a sampling:
“Well, pardon me for being white – would you like me to leave so you can have more diversity?”
“Enough of this crap already! Remove me from your records please! I am so sick of all this garbage!”
“You make being white sound like a bad thing.”
“Is there a place I can go to apologize for my skin color?”
“Get a grip you lefty bigoted racist.”
“Please, I am sick and tired of hearing about diversity.”
“I may have to help out your demographics by taking my despicable ‘whiteness’ elsewhere.”
“Will this catering to those who won’t do for themselves never end?”
“What a bunch of politically correct bull—t! We terrible white people are guilty only of caring and sharing more than other races do.”
I’d say it was the headline that triggered their wrath. But the wrath had been a long time building, and now here it was, out in the open for everyone to gawk at, like the spectacle of an overheated mom spanking her four-year-old in a shopping mall — among a group of predominantly enlightened and “progressive” white people, no less. These weren’t your classic wild-eyed, white-hooded American racists. They seemed to be virtuous, long-suffering citizens of good repute who had simply reached the limit of their tolerance.
This seismic shift in white sentiment is both overdue and dangerous. It’s overdue because white people should have been free to voice their resentments long ago. They weren’t. They kept a tight lid on their wayward thoughts and expected them to dissipate eventually. They didn’t.
The emergence of white wrath is dangerous because the Internet Age has, for better or worse, liberated us from our inhibitions over expressing unsanctified ideas. We can hide behind fictitious screen names and rant from the safety of our laptops. We can sway others of our ilk who might have been repressing their rage for half a lifetime. Before long, that rage could spread through the populace like some sinister influenza virus. This is precisely how ugly mass movements arise.
So do we try to clamp the lid back on, or do we let the poisons out? The New Moderate thinks we could use a cultural safety valve: enough freedom to express and release resentments as those resentments register in our minds, so they won’t explode in the future. I’m glad we’re finally talking more freely about race from the white perspective. For too long, only the sentiments of Angry Black People seemed to matter. But we have to make sure that Angry White People don’t become Angry White Bigots.
President Obama “gets” it, I think. In his remarkable address at the National Consititution Center in Philadelphia a year ago, he acknowledged the frustrations of white people who continually find themselves at the receiving endof racial animosities. If Obama can maintain that kind of equipoise at this evening’s ballyhooed White House “teachable moment” with Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, he’ll be doing his part to defuse white anger. It’s absolutely essential that Gates isn’t the only one permitted to do the “teaching” tonight.
From now on, communications on race in America must be a two-way street. Otherwise, those Angry White People could find themselves even angrier.