That is not really what the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is saying when he outlines the ways in which government entities and private companies made deliberate decisions to keep black communities from accumulating wealth. It is not what my colleague Ann Hornaday means when she turns a gimlet eye on the cultural tropes produced by a movie industry dominated by white men. And it is not actually what Brittney Cooper is arguing for in Salon when she ponders how particular conceptions of gender and race seem to produce a disproportionate number of mass killings in America.
But by suggesting that is the case, Lewis seems to have done a pretty effective job of inducing other people to work themselves up into a lather. “No one should have to feel this way about who they are,” he laments. “Not even historically privileged white males.” Lewis is a cordial correspondent of mine, so I will give him credit for pulling off an intentional act of provocation, rather than tilting at windmills.
In the spirit of Lewis’s piece, I would like to offer him some advice. If older white men feel maligned, they might try taking some of the recommendations that they routinely offer to people of color and women who want to better their lot. These suggestions are often presented as radically simple solutions to centuries of structural inequality. In reality, they function mostly as an attempt to make people with legitimate grievances less irritating to the powerful figures who might be expected to respond to their demands.
First, I would recommend a healthy dose of self-respect. Lewis seems to have that down all right, reminding readers that “A lot of old white men have done really great things! Ben Franklin was an old white man. Bill Clinton is an old white man. A lot of my friends are old white men. It is nothing to be ashamed of.”
This strategy for building self-confidence only works so far, though, in part because claiming collective credit for past accomplishments tends to mean accepting collective blame for present transgressions. It is dandy to know about the engineering feats that built the Great Pyramids, the role women played in winning American independence and the impact gay individuals have had on art and history. But somehow, these sorts of factoids and narratives are not much use in the midst of a violent attack, a legislative or judicial encroachment on civil rights or even a nasty family argument.
Next, Lewis might opt for respectability politics. Rather than complaining about getting blamed when a tiny minority of white men commit outrageous acts including rape, mass killings and financial chicanery on a grand scale, white men who want to recover their reputations and place in society ought to be the loudest voices denouncing such acts. Once again, it is probably futile to try to draw a firm distinction between subdivisions of white manhood. Even if such an effort succeeds, “good” white men would have to live in fear of being classed with their “bad” counterparts. But if respectability politics have such a long and noble tradition when applied to people of color and gay people, white men ought to be willing to take up the tactic for themselves.
Finally, the white men Lewis is so worried about might try the last remedy on the list: self-sufficiency. This will probably work pretty reasonably well for more well-off members of white manhood — it is easy to go it alone when you have many more assets than the groups you are competing against. But this might not be a terrific strategy for the poor white men Lewis identifies as benefiting less from white privilege than their demographic as a whole. If conservatives are so deeply concerned with white poverty, they might consider whether the sorts of interventions they scorn for communities of color look more appealing when such policies are in service of helping white people rise to the expectations set for them.
All teasing aside, if Lewis is genuinely beginning to feel bad for himself because of his membership in a particular demographic, I am sorry he has that experience. But members of that same demographic have a long history of dismissing that precise sort of discomfort as mere whining. Unlike many women and people of color, white men as a whole have plenty of financial resources, positions of power and social capital to bring to their own defense. Maybe guys like Lewis can marshal their considerable assets not simply to make themselves more comfortable, but to help change the terms of an unproductive conversation that they did so much to create.