Seeing Options Shrinking, White Men in America Ask Why

Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2016

The voices cascade into the studio, denouncing political hypocrisy and media bias and disappearing values. Hillary Clinton is a liar and a crook, they say; Donald Trump is presidential and successful. By the time the 16th caller reaches the air, Rick Roberts’ show has reached an impassioned crescendo of anger and lamentation.

What has happened to this once-great land? What has happened to the better lives our children were promised?

What has happened?

Roberts, WBAP’s bearded, rodeo-roping, husky-voiced host, has heard enough.

“I want my country back,” he begins.

He repeats that sentence a half-dozen times in a 4 ½-minute rant that darts from fear of crime to outsourced jobs to political correctness. He pans soulless politicians and has-been celebrities and psycho-babble hug-a-tree experts; he pines for a time when everyone spoke English and looked you in the eye and meant what they said. It’s a fervent soliloquy that dismisses transgender people and calls for faith to regain public footing and for economic opportunity to return.

“I want America to be America,” he says. “I want some semblance of what this country used to be. It’s worth protecting. It’s worth defending. I don’t recognize this country anymore.”

This is a white male voice preaching to a largely white male audience that has expressed many of the same sentiments, in dribs and drabs, in hushed watercooler conversations and boisterous barroom exchanges, around kitchen tables–and most of all, in the course of a presidential campaign in which Trump has become their champion and their hope.

Certainly, not all white males agree. But at this moment in American history, to be white and male means, for many, to question what happened to the opportunities once theirs for the taking, to see others getting ahead and wonder why, to feel centuries of privilege and values slipping away.

“They’re taking everything from us,” says one of the day’s callers, Stephen Sanders. “I don’t want my community changed.”

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— Whites saw their household net worth fall from a median of $192,500 before the Great Recession to $141,900 in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. (The declines of blacks and Hispanics were far larger, and whites still have an average net worth about 13 times greater than blacks and 10 times greater than Hispanics.)

— Factoring in inflation, white men’s salaries have barely budged in the past decade, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (Still, they cash paychecks, on average, far larger than those of women, blacks and Hispanics, and have a lower rate of unemployment.)

— The home ownership rate for whites, 71.5 percent in the second quarter of this year, is down from the same period a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Black and Hispanic home-ownership, already lower, dropped at a far sharper rate.)

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— Fueled by suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol-related illnesses, mortality rates for middle-age whites have increased even as they continue to fall among middle-age blacks and Hispanics, a shift recorded in a landmark study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Still, white men continue to have a longer life expectancy than black men, according to Centers for Disease Control data, though shorter than Hispanics.)

These are among the changes that have sent white men to Tea Party gatherings, to fractious town hall meetings and, more recently, to Trump’s rallies. Some argue, though, that their rage has been misplaced.

“What’s made their lives more difficult is not what they think,” said Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook University professor who studies masculinity and wrote the book “Angry White Men.” ”LGBT people didn’t outsource their jobs. Minorities didn’t cause climate change. Immigrants didn’t issue predatory loans from which they now have lost their houses and everything they ever had. These guys are right to be angry, but they’re delivering the mail to the wrong address.”

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