The Stony Brook University gender studies professor discusses the research for his latest text, Angry White Men.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel
Tavis Smiley: Sociologist and Stony Brook University professor of gender studies Michael Kimmel has spent hundreds of hours in the company of America’s so-called angry white men – men who feel disenfranchised by a myriad of problems, from underemployment to wage stagnation.
He’s now written a tome taking a deep dive into this serious disconnect called “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.” Professor Kimmel, good to have you on this program.
Michael Kimmel: Great to be here, thanks.
Tavis: Tell me why you think this is worth taking note of, and I ask that for the obvious reason – that there’s so many disenfranchised sectors of our society that there are those who would take a look at this and say who cares about white men. They still have the best of everything.
Tavis: But there’s something about this that’s worthy of our taking a deep dive into. Tell me why.
Kimmel: Well, I think that first of all, I think that they are very powerful. Some of the angry white men are very powerful, and so when you hear, for example, the day after President Obama was reelected, when you hear them say things like, “We’ve lost our country.”
When you hear Republican senators say, for example, that we have to mobilize angry white guys as the base of our constituency if we’re going to win an election, then you understand that they’re mobilizing this anger in a particular kind of political way. So I think it’s worth paying some attention to it.
Tavis: So legitimately or illegitimately, what are they angry about?
Kimmel: Well, I think that they’re not – I think that there’s anger in general because I feel like they feel like they have been stiffed, they have been betrayed. That they expected some things in their lives, and they’re not getting them.
So they feel what I call aggrieved entitlement. They feel like they’re not getting what they were entitled to get. Let me tell you, Tavis, a little bit about how I first began to think about this book, because I think it’ll illustrate why I think some of these guys are angry and where that anger goes.
I was on a talk show, but in front of a live studio audience, some years ago, opposite four guys who were, I thought – I would now call them angry white men.
These were guys who were white men who believed that they were qualified for a job, qualified for a promotion, and they didn’t get it, and they were really angry. Well, the title of this particular episode of the show was a quote from one of these guys.
The quote was, “A Black woman stole my job.” So I said to them, “I have just one question for you about the title of your show, and it’s actually about one word in the title. Let me ask you about the word ‘my.’ Where did you get the idea it was your job?
“Why isn’t the title ‘A Black Woman Got a Job,’ or ‘A Black Woman Got the Job?’ Because that’s the problem. Without confronting men’s sense of entitlement, we won’t understand what motivates their sense of anger.”
Look, white men in America believed this was a level playing field, so you tilt it a little bit, a lot of guys think, oh my God, water’s rushing uphill; it’s reverse discrimination against us.
So I tried to get inside that sense of aggrieved entitlement. We were entitled to these positions, we were entitled to these jobs, and to try to get an understanding of why they felt so angry and aggrieved about it.
Tavis: Let me pick that apart for just a second. It might not be that white men or anybody else is entitled to anything in society, but if in fact they have done all the things that society tells them to do – they have stayed out of trouble, they have gone to school, they have married, they’ve started a family, they’ve invested their money.
They’ve done all the things that we are told as Americans that if we do, the American dream is yours, so it might not be a sense of entitlement, but have they not paid their dues where there ought to be something on the other end of this.
Kimmel: I agree. I agree entirely. One of the things that I felt when I was listening to these guys’ stories was I felt enormous amount of compassion for them.
I listened to these stories and I felt like yes, I believe that Americans are entitled. We’re entitled to have a job that makes us feel like we have some dignity in our lives, that we live a life of integrity, and that we have good family relationships and our relationships with our friends and our families and our coworkers are enriching and meaningful.
I think we have a right to – we should feel entitled to that. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, endowed by our creator. So I do believe that we’re entitled. But the question for these, in my interviews, is what’s preventing you from having that life to which you are entitled?
Do you think it is Black women? Do you think that it’s Black women who have downsized you, who have outsourced your job, who have closed the factory? Do you think it’s lesbians and gays who are responsible for climate change? Do you think that it’s immigrants who have in many ways outsourced your job?
Of course not. Is it immigrants who are the predatory lenders? No. I think the men are right to be angry, but they’re delivering their mail to the wrong address.
Tavis: So what is preventing them from assigning blame where it ought to be placed?
Kimmel: Well, I think if you see – if you’ve been badly done by, which many men have –
Many of the white guys that I talked to, they have been badly done by. If you see your situation in race or gender terms – the Black woman stole my job – you’re going to move to the right.
But if you see it in class terms, if you say these companies and these predatory lenders and whatever have done this, you’re going to move to the left.
Let me give you an example of a couple of angry white men. Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen. You know, Tom Joad, the fictional character in “Grapes of Wrath.”
Kimmel: Or Bruce Springsteen, the poet laureate of America’s white working class. They’re angry, but they don’t see their situation in terms of race or gender. That’s not the source of their problem.
They see it in terms of class, and they move to the left. Populism, Tavis, is an emotion, it’s not a theory. You could go to the right or you could go to the left.
Tavis: What makes the difference, though, in which way they turn, left or right?
Kimmel: Well, I think it’s the prism through which they see things. Now, if you – and I also think that they are invited to and often manipulated to see it through those prisms of race or gender as opposed to class.
Tavis: Manipulated by talk radio, manipulated by –
Kimmel: Well, by outrage radio, you bet.
Tavis: – cable television, manipulated by – yeah.
Kimmel: A friend of mine did a piece once about Rush Limbaugh, and as he was listening, he heard this guy call in and said, “Rush, I’m really upset, I’m really sad. I lost my job, and I can’t pay the rent on my house and we might lose our house. I’m really upset about this.”
Rush says, “You don’t sound upset, you sound angry, and here’s who you should be angry at.” So clearly, this anguish needs to be manipulated and massaged into anger.
Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, Professor Kimmel, but why is it in our society okay, apparently, particularly when you look back on what happened in the last couple of election cycles, why is it okay for white men to be angry but it’s not okay for Black men to be angry?
Kimmel: Well, clearly it’s okay in our culture right now for white men to be angry, because there’s that sense of outrage, because it’s the way that a lot of white men are claiming a kind of victim status.
I don’t think it’s legitimate, or it’s – maybe it’s legitimate, but it’s just scary to white people when Black people get angry. I think it’s pretty evident to me that one of the reasons that Barack Obama’s career has been so successful is because he never rose to the bait.
He never took that bait; he never got angry in public when he was campaigning against McCain, when he was campaigning against Romney. People actually talked about how cool he was. I think still America would not be ready to elect an angry Black man.
Tavis: When you talk about entitlements, and you made the philosophical point that as Americans we ought to be entitled to certain things, I would put on that list that you laid out we ought to feel entitled to a living wage job, not a minimum wage job.
We ought to feel entitled to an equal, high-quality education. We ought to feel entitled to a job that allows us to have some dignity. We ought to feel entitled to some healthcare.
So I get your philosophical point that we ought to feel entitled to that. Give me your sense of how it is that we start to tweak this debate that’s happening in Washington now, which is really going to pick up here in the month of January.
At the end of last year, we figured out what the budget was going to be. That is to say, we know how much we’re going to spend. This month, the fight will get going in earnest, as you know, about what we spend that on, what we don’t spend it on. Because I’ve said many times budgets are moral documents.
Kimmel: That’s right.
Tavis: But we’ll figure out this month what we spend the money on. But here’s what I’m getting to. I’ve stopped – I’m trying, at least, to stop using the phrase “entitlements” and use the phrase “earned benefits.”
Because what these seniors are upset about and what people of color are upset about, and women and others who are disenfranchised – and I suspect, back to your book, what some of these angry white men are angry about – is not that they feel so much entitled, but that these are earned benefits that they’re now being screwed out of. Does that make any sense?
Kimmel: Right. It absolutely makes some sense.
Kimmel: I don’t think that many of the white men who are angry actually think that there are these earned benefits, although I do think that many of them feel like listen, I played by all the rules.
You told me what the rules were; I played by all the rules, and now I’m not getting what I thought I had earned. So I guess in some respects that that might be the case.
I use the word “entitlement,” singular, to describe a kind of posture or temperament, and we agree that – and what you and I also seem to agree on is that the very things that will enable us to have these kinds of lives of enriched relationships, meaningful lives and work with dignity, are certain kinds of policies that will enable us to have those things to which we feel entitled.
Like the fact that we don’t have, for example, national healthcare, or what about as a parent, what about childcare? What about a system of childcare that enables parents to work? That enables parents to raise their children.
The moral fight about the budget is are we going to punish working poor people – not just poor people, but people who work and on a minimum wage can’t make a decent living, enough to support their family. Are we going to punish them further for actually trying as hard as they do?
Tavis: But your point now raises the two issues I was trying to get at. One of them is – and I take your point about the way you use the word and define the word entitlement in the text.
Tavis: What I’m suggesting is that I think that line between what they feel as an entitlement and what many of them have legitimately earned as benefits from the country, from the government, from what they paid into the system. Is that line getting blurred?
Kimmel: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Kimmel: The best way you can see that is what’s happening to returning veterans. They were promised all kinds of things. Think about how many workers have had their pensions cut or their health benefits cut by companies as they’ve gone forward.
They felt like well, suddenly I’m 64 and my retirement just disappeared. Think about how often we hear these kinds of stories. I agree entirely – that’s an earned benefit.
Tavis: Sure, and that is – I should be clear, now that you and I agree with us – those earned benefits sometimes are due to our fellow citizens from government, and sometimes they’re due from corporate America.
Tavis: They’re getting screwed by both, oftentimes.
Tavis: So here’s the exit question – what, then, do you make of the irony, at least as I see it, that these angry white men so often support a party and support policies that are pushing an agenda that is antithetical to their best interest?
Kimmel: You got me. This is the real question that I tried to answer at the end of the book, is how do you get – this is a kind of “What’s the matter with Kansas” question, right?
How do you get people who obviously are in the same boat as other people who are facing the same kind of problems and have the same kind of sense of, as you say, earned benefit, how is it that you get them to deliver their mail to the wrong address?
To divert their attention to those below them on the ladder rather than those above them who are actually, in many ways, running the show and causing the kinds of problems that they are actually facing.
This is a kind of a smoke-and-mirrors political manipulation, and I think that you see it – what happens – what I think is that white men’s anger is real. That is to say they really feel this, the men who I’m talking about.
But on the other hand, it’s not true. It’s not an accurate analysis of their situation. The case of their pain is not who they think it is. So I think it’s our job – media, authors, writers, speakers – to sort of begin to sort of unravel or unpack that anger in a way that enables them to see what the real sources are.
Tavis: I think you’re right. They are blaming the wrong persons. But I keep thinking, with regard to the poverty work that I do, what a beautiful day it would be if these angry white men could in fact understand who is to blame for their condition. That is the ultimate in coalition-building.
Kimmel: You bet. That’s it, that’s it, that’s the moment. That’s the moment.
Tavis: If you could ever get all these disaffected, disenfranchised poor people of every race, color, and creed to come together, that’s how you change Washington.
Kimmel: Yeah, I think so.
Tavis: But I digress on that point. (Laughter) The book is called “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.” Powerful book, a lot of research into it. I enjoyed it, and I’m sure you will as well – written by Stony Brook professor Michael Kimmel. Professor Kimmel, great work. Good to have you on the program.
Kimmel: Thank you, Tavis.
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