In his State of the Union Address, President Obama tried to counter the aggrieved entitlement that is eroding our politics. Including my own. (More)
President Obama vs. Aggrieved Entitlement … Including My Own
I almost didn’t watch the State of the Union Address last night. First, it starts late for me, 9pm on the East Coast, to accommodate West Coast viewers. I’m usually asleep by 9:30pm, and that was the first reason I gave last night when I said I planned to skip the speech.
But that wasn’t the main reason. The main reason was simply that I’m sick of politics.
As I told Herself and Houseguest, “I no longer believe in our system. I no longer believe in the American people. I think Fred’s a f–king idiot, and I think our next president will be named Trump or Cruz. Because I think there’s a majority, maybe 55% of Americans, almost all of them white, who are pissed off because they don’t have every damn thing they want, so they resent that anyone else has anything at all.”
I mentioned stories I’d read at progressive news sites about the white terrorists who have taken over the wildlife refuge in Oregon. The stories agreed “the worst possible outcome” would be if law enforcement went in and “made martyrs.”
Every one of those stories was written by a white male. I couldn’t get past the suspicion that their fretting about “the worst possible outcome” was less about making “martyrs” than it was about implicit bias, even among progressive white male news writers. To me, it seemed they were throwing up their hands: “It sucks that armed whites can take over federal property, but what are we gonna do? Imagine the backlash if federal agents hurt any white people!”
I’ll admit that’s not entirely fair. Progressive white male pundits also worry about cops going overboard during Black Lives Matter rallies and other such protests. But again, they seem to worry less because the cops might hurt some protesters … than because images of cops clashing with black protesters will fuel whites’ fears and create more pressure for cops to crack down even harder.
“Black Americans are generally less angry than whites”
Consider this Bloomberg headline: Obama’s State of the Union Optimism at Odds With Voter Anxiety. That’s a lie-by-omission … of a very specific and common sort. The political story of 2016 is not “voter anxiety.” It’s white voter anxiety:
Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you’re probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment. When we cross-tabulate these feelings with reports of daily anger (which are higher among whites than nonwhites), we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement – a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out – rather than actual hardship. (If anger were tied to hardship, we’d expect to see nonwhite Americans—who report having a harder time making ends meet than whites, per question three—reporting higher levels of anger. This is not the case.)
Indeed, despite having what many would consider a more legitimate case for feeling angry, black Americans are generally less angry than whites. Though they take great issue with the way they are treated by both society in general and the police in particular, blacks are also more likely than whites to believe that the American dream is still alive; that America is still the most powerful country in the world; that race relations have improved over the past eight years; and, most important in the context of expectations, that their financial situation is better than they thought it would be when they were younger. Their optimism in the face of adversity suggests that hope, whatever its other virtues, remains a potent antidote to anger.
By leaving the “white” out, the Bloomberg headline (and story) buy into the common narrative that whites have no race. If black voters were angry, the story would be about “black anxiety” or, more likely, “black anger” or even “black rage.” But when white voters are angry … the story is about “voter anxiety,” as if that’s not a mostly-white phenomenon, and not linked to the white supremacy that simmers through our politics.
Including, frankly, the politics of some white progressives who resent any program that helps people of color more than whites. Never mind the fact that people of color are more likely to be marginalized – economically and otherwise – and thus need more help. Who needs help is irrelevant. Health care should be “universal” and college should be “free for everyone” … or “other” whites will fight back and undermine the program. Do you “feel the Bern” yet?
“What I’m asking for is hard”
But I stifled my grumbles and watched … and heard President Obama say this:
What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.
We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.
It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen - inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word - voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
They’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention, nor do they seek it, but they are busy doing the work this country needs doing.
I’m not narcissistic enough to think President Obama and his speechwriters wrote that passage just for me. I suspect they wrote it to reach out to a whole lot of people who’ve begun to cringe every time they open the news. And that includes me.
I’m angry too. I’m angry that, after seven years, the wave of white rage that followed President Obama’s election and reelection hasn’t yet crested and begun to wane. Sometimes I want to shake them and say “White men still have almost all of the money and almost all of the power. But it’s only ‘almost all’ now. The rest of us have managed to get at least a tiny bit. And that ‘We the People’ thing means all of us. So get over your damn selves.”
I’m angry because I worked to help elect President Obama and Democrats, in 2008 and again in 2012. Indeed from 2011-2015, I was Vice Chair of my local Democratic Party. I made voter outreach plans. I drew up phone lists and cut turf. I knocked on doors. I made calls. I talked with neighbors, including some arch-conservatives, trying to work through their concerns. I Fred Whispered, talking with repairmen and plumbers and people in the grocery. And I’ve been writing Morning Feature for seven years.
And instead of waning, the wave of white rage just keeps rising higher, fueling Donald Trump – and white male progressives – who whine about political correctness and wring their hands about making “martyrs” when anyone suggests maybe it’s not a great idea to give white terrorists a free pass.
I’ve been working – with millions of others – to help create a more equal, more inclusive society. And so far there’s little evidence of progress. And yes, that makes me angry …
… because I’m white and dammit I feel entitled to some results from all that hard work, and I’m aggrieved that I’m not seeing enough results.
Last night President Obama took on aggrieved white entitlement, including my own. And I’m glad he did.
I needed to be reminded that there are tens of millions of Americans – including a lot of white men – who do not seethe with rage when women or people of color succeed. There are tens of millions of Americans – including a lot of white men – who are doing their part, day by day, to help us become “a more perfect Union.”
And I needed to be reminded that there has been progress over the past seven years. Not as much as I hoped for, in many areas. More than I dared imagine, in others.
I still cringed as I opened the news this morning. It still feels like a foul swamp. But President Obama and tens of millions of Americans – including a lot of white men – are indeed trying to drain that swamp. That will take time …
… and I need to get over my damn self and get back to work.
Photo Credit: AP Video