MAXWELL:  Angry white men have reason to be angry, and scared

3/12/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


What is an angry white male anyway _ this inscrutable personage whose votes created the new Republican Party?

These mad white dudes interest me because many are in Washington, in state capitals and in county and city buildings nationwide masquerading as enlightened leaders. True, they have always been in these places all gussied up as paragons of virtue, courage and hard work.

Today, however, as they strut around with sundry Contracts On America in their coat pockets, many are genuinely scared. Indeed, two of the quintessential mad guys _ Newt and Rush _ are scared to death. Why are such powerful men so dolorous and terrified?

Two articles in the March 7 issue of the Village Voice, whose cover proclaims, “Whiny white guys,” shed light on the subject.

“There have always been angry white men,” one article stated. “What’s new is their emergence in this country as a political bloc. These guys are on a well-publicized rampage, howling about their loss of power, casting themselves as victims and everyone else as their oppressors. What’s so wacky about this role reversal is that white men clearly hold the lion’s share of political and corporate power. They lead the major religions and run the military. But they have lost something less tangible, without which they cannot continue to rule: their legitimacy.”

Slowly, I am starting to understand. The loss of their legitimacy is one hell of a wakeup call. It has to be a scary condition. The mere thought of it reminds me of dialogue in a Samuel Beckett play.

One character says something like: “I think we’re beginning to mean something.” In absurdist, existential minimalism, the other responds in these approximate words: “We . . . mean something?”

I can imagine an angry white man feeling like Beckett’s forlorn creatures. As a black male in America, I often feel as if I, too, have no legitimacy, no meaning. But we digress.

Again, the Village Voice: “White men are no longer the whole against which we measure all the parts, but one more special-interest group. Once they were “mankind,’ now they’re just another niche in the endless segmentation of markets and identities.”

Such a comedown has caused unfathomable discombobulation. No wonder so many well-fed, angry, white yuppy men have taken to smoking cigars. Hell, I would become resentful and turn to demon nicotine, too, if I felt as aggrieved as these guys do. For most, the 1990s must seem like the eve of Armageddon.

The angry-white male phenomenon did not catch me flatfooted. Like other moviegoers who saw Falling Down starring Michael Douglas a few years ago, I was introduced to our newest minority but did not take it seriously. If you recall, Douglas _ an angry white male and something of a demagogue in real life _ played a bumbling, hateful, white ex-missile-plant worker (his vanity license plate reads D-FENS). He ostensibly personified America’s lost middle class.

Misanthropy and vengeance against immigrants, the homeless and other expendable types control the energy of Falling Down. And the violence that D-FENS metes out against a few of his enemies might even shock some members of O. J.’s Dream Team.

Newsweek magazine’s March 29, 1993 cover story, “White Male Paranoia,” was one of the first thoughtful pieces in the popular press to explore the emergence of the angry white male. After getting the second largest number of letters the magazine had ever received in response to a cover story, Newsweek editors tried to figure out what they had unleashed.

“Many readers were amused that white men feel put upon by women and minorities,” the editors wrote. “Many white men, by contrast, believed they’d been stereotyped. . . . Suddenly white males are surrounded by feminists, multiculturalists, P.C. policepersons, affirmative-action employers, rap artists, Native Americans, Japanese tycoons, Islamic fundamentalists and Third World dictators, all of them saying the same thing: “You’ve been a bad boy.’ ”

But the bad boys are fighting back. They are mad and scared. Why? Although I am no expert on white male fear, I believe they are scared because divine retribution is at hand.

For too long, they have shirked their collateral responsibilities to the rest of the human community. Angry white men who suddenly feel victimized argue that racism and sexism have all but disappeared in the United States and that blacks and women can compete equally with white men. They also believe that they have no present or future responsibility for the sins of their forebears.

Perhaps they are right. But I do not think so. Sure, slavery as a peculiar institution is dead, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act wiped out Jim Crow laws. But the prejudices acceptable then remain today _ cloaked behind smiles, pats on the back and handshakes.

I cannot feel sorry for this new breed. Like the rest of us, these men are responsible for easing the collateral, residual damage the past does to the living.

For example, the very banks that discriminated against blacks a century ago are doing so today. Then white men operated them. Now angry white men operate them.

Alas, demographics are changing in every sector. The nation’s workplace, for one, is becoming darker and more female. A 1993 Labor Department survey charting those to enter the workforce between 1992 and 2005 has predicted that more than two-thirds of all new employees will be minorities and women. A mere 31 percent will be white Anglo men.

These prospects will not cheer the white male. If anything, they will make him angrier. White men must now become team players; no longer are they an island unto themselves.

They are still the major player, as the Village Voice states, but they are no longer the game. Were I a white male, I would be angry, too. And scared.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.