Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Endangered White Men: The Saga Continues!

In a Newsweek article more accurately described as a lamentation on the possible loss of privilege, Rick Maren and Tony Doukopil explore the plight of the "Beached White Male.” More specifically, they continue the ever popular myth of "the endangered white man.” From the article:
Brian Goodell, of Mission Viejo, Calif., won two gold medals in the 1976 Olympics. An all-American, God-fearing golden boy, he segued into a comfortable career in commercial real estate. Until 2008, when he was laid off. As a 17-year-old swimmer, he set two world records. As a 52-year-old job hunter, he’s drowning.

Brock Johnson, of Philadelphia, was groomed at Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Co., and was so sure of his marketability that he resigned in 2009 as CEO of a Fortune 500 company without a new job in hand. Johnson, who asked that his real name not be used, was certain his BlackBerry would be buzzing off its holster with better offers. At 48, he’s still unemployed.

Two coasts. Two men who can’t find jobs. And one defining moment for the men in the gray flannel suits who used to run this country. Or at least manage it.
Capitalism has always been cruel to its castoffs, but those blessed with a college degree and blue-chip résumé have traditionally escaped the worst of it. In recessions past, they’ve kept their jobs or found new ones as easily as they might hail a cab or board the 5:15 to White Plains. But not this time.


The same guys who once drove BMWs, in other words, have now been downsized to BWMs: Beached White Males.

The theme throughout the article is that the effects of the “Mancession” are suddenly more alarming because people like this--Ivy-league educated, BMW driving, white men--might be suffering, too!

I don’t know rightly where to start or stop with this article because it is so very, very loaded. Maren and Doukopil really used the phrase “All American… golden boy.” They really casually reference the easy way in which white men "hail a cab," an un-innocent choice of words, an invocation of the sorts of things white men have been able to take for granted, given cab drivers' well-documented reluctance and outright refusal to stop for men of color. They really suggest that white men used to run the country, as if the presidency of Barack Obama renders invisible the makeup of Congress, the court system, the governorships, business leaders… well, you know. But most disturbingly, they really imply that the situation created by the recession is unfair, not solely because these men “deserve” security because they are educated or made good career choices (that would be problematic enough in and of itself given the unequal access to education and work opportunities, but I digress), but they “deserve” better because they are white and male.

See, the endangered white man myth does not solely rest on the zero-sum argument that white men are increasingly disadvantaged in this country by the gains of women and people of color. The myth is also fed by the fear that being white and male will no longer bring all the old advantages. Claiming that white men are suffering unfairly or disproportionately is the not-so-subtle code for, “Ahh! The old system of privilege is being dismantled and we want to hold onto it!” Many white men have come to see the benefits of the privileging of whiteness and maleness as their due, as rights to which they are entitled. When that privilege seems even remotely challenged, when the systems that have upheld and institutionalized their "exceptionalism" seem no longer to do so, the result is a "real" crisis, i.e. one felt by the people deemed most important in society.

And so, Maren and Dokoupil inform us that the term “ ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged populations’… now includes white males.” This operates at once, as an acknowledgement of class and an ahistorical disappearance of generations of poor and working class white men, commensurate, I guess, with their focus on the plight of white men with the most social privilege. They speculate on the devastating effects the recession may have on the mental health and well-being of these men who might feel less-than-men. And they equate (their problematic definition of) manhood solely with the experiences and existence of upper class white men as they wonder, “Can manhood survive the lost decade?”

The power of the endangered white man myth lies partially in its ability to obscure the plight of people who really are suffering inordinately. In this case, in an admittedly terrible economy in which white men are struggling, they still have relative privilege to everyone else, who are also struggling, but even worse. For example, the alarming statistic around which the Newsweek article is organized is this: “Through the first quarter of 2011, nearly 600,000 college-educated white men ages 35 to 64 were unemployed, according to previously unpublished Labor Department stats. That’s more than 5 percent jobless.”

Y’all… when I looked quickly at BLS statistics for March 2011, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for white men 20 and over was 7.7% For black men in the same age group, it was 16.8%

But Newsweek makes it clear to whom we should direct our attention and concern. For the last few years, we have been repeatedly told that the effects of this recession are somehow made more damaging because it purportedly affects men more than women. Now, we learn, its even worse than we thought because it is affecting the men who matter most.

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