Monday, October 25, 2010

Barack Obama and the Crisis in Confidence Among (Conservative) White Men

Race is often discussed in macro-level terms. But, race is also about the relationship of power to individuals. To borrow from noted political theorist Michele Foucault,what is power if not a force enacted upon some things(s)? Those things being our bodies and minds. Thus, "race matters" both for how we map out the world, and the ways in which we orient ourselves in relationship to it.

Genius comics such as Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Paul Mooney and David Chappelle capture this reality with wonderful and biting wit. For example, as many a black (and brown) comedian has joked, white folks run towards trouble and not away from it. Likewise, some white folks like to keep exotic and dangerous pets simply because they can, for in their imaginations no foul deed can ever happen to them.

I always share bits of found knowledge that explain the common sense notions that black folks (and those who are the Other, more generally) have used to triumph in and navigate an absurd world. To point: my riding the bus home reading for the week is a fun book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why?. Therein, I stumbled upon a real gem of research that explores the levels of worry felt by different groups of people, and how this emotion impacts their subsequent capacities for risk-taking behavior. It reads as follows:


Remember that equation for dread? It's different for men and women. Almost every survey ever done on risk perception finds that women worry more about almost everything...But when risk expert Paul Slovic tried to explain the gender gap this way, he ran into problems. The stereotype didn't quite fit. For example African American men worried just as much as women generally did. So unless African American men are born nurturers, nature didn't entirely explain the difference. Are women and minorities less educated and so more emotional in their risk assessments? Well, no. When Slovic controlled for education, the sex and racial differences persisted...

Eventually Slovic realized he was obsessing over the wrong people. Men were the ones throwing off the curve, not women or minorities. And not all men, but a small subgroup. As it turns out, about the 30 percent of white males see very little risk in most threats. They create much of the gender and race gap all on their own. So then Slovic began to study these white men. They have a few subtle things in common. "They liked the world of status, hierarchy, and power," says Slovic. They believed in technology. They were more likely than any other group to disagree with the statement that people should be treated more equally. Usually, they were white men, but not always. The more important factor was how they viewed the world and their place in it. If a white male felt discriminated against or marginalized by society, then he would likely switch sides, joining women and minorities in their worry.


So it seems that the psychic wages of white (male) privilege pay off once more. But then again, this (over) confidence can also be one's last coffin nail.

Slovic's findings are potent in some other surprising ways as well.

From the right wing reactionary movement, to the herrenvolk Tea Party, and the rise of the politics of white racial resentment and victimology verbally ejaculated on a daily basis by Beck, Limbaugh, Buchanan, and the Right-wing echo chamber, the psychic comforts and confidence that come from a near paraphilia-like fixation on the memories of a nostalgia infused "good old" days and "real America" are a powerful intoxicant. This confidence when lost, this privileged status when seemingly disrupted (especially in a time of economic uncertainty), leads us almost inevitably to the backlash against President Barack Obama--when the upset and entitled empire of angry white (conservative) men are poised to strike back.

Sadly, a restoration of their confidence and a pat on the back that "things are going to be okay," may not be enough in a game of zero-sum, winner take all politics. With the upcoming elections and declining poll numbers among white voters--and especially white male independents--the ultimate victims of this crisis of confidence and the (not unreasonable) triumph of worry may very well be Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.


Anonymous said...

Being a straight, white, middle-aged, middle class guy, I'm often privy to the 'private' conversations and musings of the men who consume Beck and Limbaugh's blatherings. They're freaking out the same way the Catholic Church did when heliocentrism was irrefutably proven. They know that their immutable world of hierarchy and privilege is going, going and almost gone, and they just can't deal with it in a rational manner. Their 'good old days America' was one in which a straight, Christian white man, regardless of lack of skill, intelligence or training, got first dibs on everything in this society (and pretty much the planet). The fact that they may have to earn their place, or worse, that a woman or non-white might prove to be actually better than them, terrifies them.

Oh Crap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Oh Crap said...

I'm amused, somewhat, by the rash of Age-of-Obama pseudorevelatory statements I keep hearing over and over from whites, who apparently think the Beckerwoods teabaggers of the world are keeping their legendary anxieties hidden and amongst only themselves.

That itself is part of the pathology; that they think we're so dumb we can't discern baldfaced race rage when it's directed right at our persons.

Many newly-scandalized whites, presumbably hearing these clandestine whispers for the first time, should not underestimate the kind of crap these people will say directly to our faces.

Emblematic: CSPAN caller. I don't see anything out of the ordinary about her. I find her to be typical.

We're all too aware of white anxiety. We live with its effects every day.