Powerful white men dominate most, if not all aspects of society in the United States. Is it just because they’re scared?
There’s this thing that I’ve been chewing on for a few years now that has finally come into much sharper relief. I’ve often wondered: how is it that powerful, rich white dudes have not only got such a firm grip on nearly everything but also have, by and large, managed to maintain that grip?
Now, much has been written about the specific machinations that the power wielded by white men has birthed and also how these systems continue to perpetuate their own dominance. But what I’m trying to get at is the underlying emotion or driving force behind the individual choice made by well-positioned white guys to cohere into a force that subjugates, divides and pilfers from the people who, in their own eyes, are underfoot and should stay there.
But of course someone will win and the goal is that it will ultimately be you.
My circle of friends, my partner and myself play a lot of board games. Some of us still go out and drink and pretty well at that. But a quieter night in with friends gathered around the kitchen table sharing snacks and drinks while playing tabletop adventures is more our speed and is especially the case for myself. One of the many things I enjoy about board games aside from the excitement of zero-consequence competition, is how, generally, people’s personalities manifest themselves through game playing.
Ferdinand is generally uninterested in board games.
When we sit there at the beginning of the game, we’re all on more or less equal footing. Same number of cards, same amount of make-believe currency, same level of power. What happens next is usually the same sequence that plays out in many of the games we play. Some of us are little more aggressive, a little more keyed-in. Some of us don’t know quite what they are planning to do next and some of us are perhaps too trusting of the other players and just want to have a good time. (A funny notion that is, to be too trusting.) The quicker to trust among us are often used one by one as rungs while the aggressors make their way to the finish.
One of the weapons in the arsenal of the aggressors is to sow distrust among the other players. The easiest way to incite suspicion is to look at your nearest competitor and draw everyone’s attention to their success as to warn all in attendance that they should be stopped or everyone will lose. But of course someone will win and the goal is that it will ultimately be you.
An even more useful and efficient tactic is to turn everyone against everyone. If they’re too busy fighting each other how can they possibly push back against you? You do this by simply reminding another player, in the moment that they gain some temporary power, that they were wronged by some other player. The best strategy when playing from behind is always to gang up on the leader. But, if you’re the closest to winning you of course don’t want that thought to cross anyone’s mind at all. However, when one tastes power, no matter how fleeting, the natural course, the irrational yet tangentially justifiable course, is revenge. The poetry associated with vengeance is often too tantalizing to resist. Seeing someone who is essentially on the same level as you be punished or pushed back down is imminently cathartic.
Well, they don’t know it’s only temporary but you do.
Another characteristic that comes to the fore in certain players is one of trustworthiness. The players playing the most dishonest game are more prone to distrusting other players. The further into the game they go by thieving and lying the more they expect the same actions to be visited upon themselves. Maybe it’s one’s guilty conscience rearing its head? Perhaps not, but it does speak to a very human capacity to be on the lookout for karmic justice. This serves to only further influence future decision making. As soon as a player begins to look at other players in this light, that’s it. They are coming for you with knives out just as you did them so you better crush them first. It’s the pre-emptive strike. It’s the cop firing on someone that they thought had a gun. “I better shoot them first because if I were them, I would shoot me first.”
It is entirely possible to win any number of games playing in this fashion. But there will come a time when the other players catch on and silently agree to come for you. At just such a juncture the best you can hope for is that you have enough silly little tokens or game pieces to withstand the assault. Or, you can call for a momentary truce with one of the horde in order to stave off destruction. Well, they don’t know it’s only temporary but you do.
If you are one the players trailing far behind your options become severely limited as the game wears on. You will find that you have to choose between continuing to play in earnest or playing your cards with minimal interest in hopes that the game, so far out of your hands now, will be over soon.
Many of them find the darkest impulses of humankind woven into their fabric and should be seen as suspect from the outset.
Particularly in the Americas when white men conquered and eradicated native peoples it was done with deceit and brutality. With campaigns finished, battles and wars won, systems were then put into place to keep tabs on the remnants of those they had dominated. They did this out of fear of retribution. They confined them to the reservations where they could keep an eye of them for fear that their named enemy was planning on returning the favor. In most cases this was simply not true, the people pushed into the margins wanted their homes and families and to live in peace, not to march into white settlements and put dwellings to the torch. We told ourselves these stories and lies after the fact in the form of John Ford movies to retroactively justify our own paranoid actions and the benefits derived therefrom as white people.
Strip me of my citizenship if you must, but I must confess that I hate John Wayne.
Not much digging is required to see how that same unjustified paranoia fueled the perpetuation of slavery and later Jim Crow which in several key ways persists into the present day. At every step of the way it became a requirement for the survival of the system to defend cruel behavior and if the white masses think that slave uprisings, race riots and Black Panther militias are going to go door to door killing, raping and looting then you can make almost any policy or practice appear not just necessary but preordained. Paranoia sustained and still sustains discriminatory actions because we visited the aforementioned atrocities first. When you are convinced that karma could be trying to come for you it’s not much of a leap of the imagination to re-frame a person of color advocating for change as an enemy agent who wants to exact Old Testament-style justice.
It is in the name of your own ego that those below are to remain below.
Systems are not completely without feeling. Feelings are what drive humans and humans create systems to organize their society in the ways that they think fit. As these systems are created in our own image they are susceptible to the flaws that come along with human feelings and can be easily exploited on the premise of those same feelings. Many of them find the darkest impulses of humankind woven into their fabric and should be seen as suspect from the outset.
If you are a poor man, surely you see yourself aligned with all poor people, do you not? No, of course you don’t. Unless you find yourself at the very bottom as a poor person of color the only comfort you can give yourself is that at least you’re not one of them. At least there is an “other” beneath you and heaven forbid they should ever catch up to you because then, without any direct change to your station in life, now you are at the bottom too. You didn’t fall. The bottom has simply come up to meet you. It is in the name of your own ego that those below are to remain below.
If you are a white woman, at least you’re white. A shortcut we hear all too often in public spheres wrongly gathers women as a single, monolithic entity, when things don’t actually play out like that. True, many of their life experiences as women overlap but as long as a white woman exists somewhere she will always be perceived as having more value than a woman of color. White women know they aren’t in power, but many of them choose to link arms with white men in order to uphold the patriarchy because the paranoia of what happens next if they don’t is too much to handle. In some examples it’s less paranoia and much more representative of a legitimate fear of marginalization.
…but it does highlight how they have chosen whiteness over being women.
All except one female Republican senator chose to support the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh while no female Democratic senators did. This obviously illustrates not only the partisanship of the chamber and of the United States in general, but also that there are women who will continue to enable patriarchy, in particular white patriarchy, if it means that they can still play second fiddle in their own party’s endeavors. They want power within the structure and they rightly calculated that flouting the wishes of their own white male-dominated political party would hurt their standing within their own chosen hierarchy. Now, to be sure, most of these women were already on that track, second-guessing the Kavanaugh nomination was never in the cards for them but it does highlight how they have chosen whiteness over being women.
White men fear loss of status, especially in terms of their peer groups. They, rightly so, want to either maintain or advance. And it so happens that the best means of doing so are by keeping others behind. As long as no one is gaining on you, you win, comparatively speaking.
“Now look here, see. I told that poor to move or be squashed flat by my Packard, see.”
The underlying fears white men associated with the prospect of the others catching up range from the mildly delusional to the outright insane. Political correctness is censorship! They’ll tax everyone into the poor house! Women will castrate men! Black people will enslave white people!
If it looks like there’s a chance that the mobs with get the wealth and power that has historically been withheld they will finally buy the torches and pitchforks they need in order to storm gated communities. If they finally get to vote as easily as they should they’ll elect black extremists. Boys and men will have to wear body cams just to prove that they didn’t commit acts of sexual violence.
The country is divided by them and in their service.
Is this paranoia linked to a collective guilty conscience? In the end, I think no. That would be giving powerful white men too much credit and blind the kind of hyper-cynical eye one needs in order to see what the whole thing is really about. I do think that influential white men wet the bed at the thought of falling from grace and no longer running the system as it was designed to and that their every daydream consists of the methods that would keep the system running smoothly or how to best reap the bounties that they have carved out for themselves.
The country is divided, as white men say. But they’re not telling the whole truth. The country is divided by them and in their service. They align themselves with whatever group they need at the time in order to preserve and protect what they’ve built for themselves.
They host rallies for everyone and say that the “other” is swarming the borders. They pull other men aside and say that women are coming for them. They call white women into their offices and say to work with them lest they be confused for someone working against them. They make the temporary alliances that they need whenever they feel threatened and then discard that alliance when its benefit to them is no longer required.
The lengths people will go to in defense of what they feel they’ve earned knows no bounds, especially when fear and paranoia enter the equation.
If paranoia and fear of retaliation are the lifeblood of the society we’ve been born into, maybe what’s required of us all is to retaliate with our money and with our votes. For my fellow white people, is in incumbent upon us to retaliate by giving our support to anyone but the very same powerful white men who hold all the cards. We cannot afford to sit back in resignation and hope that the game, so far out of our hands now, will be over soon.
Alex Biscarner is a freelance writer living in South Bohemia in the Czech Republic.