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Steve Nelson: White Men Resent Loss of Privileged Status

“America is not the land of the free unless you’re an African-American, woman or child.” This odd comment came from my barber, an immigrant from Israel, as I sat captive in his chair this week.

Just days before, I watched a debate between New Jersey’s U.S. Senate candidates, Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Steve Lonegan. Booker, who won Wednesday’s special election, is the African-American mayor of Newark, while Lonegan served as mayor of Bogota and as New Jersey state director of Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax organization with a decided libertarian bent. As with the Israeli barber, listening to Lonegan’s Tea Partyesque rants, one might believe that the most beleaguered minority in America is white men.

These two experiences illustrate a significant dynamic that infests the political sphere and has created the sharp polarization of recent years. Fertilized by non-stop propaganda from organizations such as Heritage Action and the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and FreedomWorks, many Americans feel deeply resentful of our increasingly diverse and complex society. They want life back the way it used to be, or as they thought it used to be.

Lonegan seems to teem with diffused racist anger. At one point in the debate, Booker was reduced to muttering “oh my God, oh my God,” as Lonegan blamed New Jersey’s water pollution on “bodies floating in the river in Newark.” While discussing the Affordable Care Act, Lonegan sneered and lashed out with “You’re just like him!!” referring to President Obama. The racial implication was unmistakable. It seemed that Lonegan was nearly apoplectic at the idea that he should even have to debate a black man. Lonegan is also on the record suggesting that Camden, N.J. should be “bulldozed.” More than 80 percent of Camden’s residents are non-white.

So here we are, well into the 21st century, with a generation’s worth of social progress at risk because of these hateful characterizations. As painted by the political right, from mainstream Mitt Romney to bizarre Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, half of Americans are “takers,” living off the hard work of others, benefitting from unfair affirmative action programs and living slothful, irresponsible lives. Even our remarkably dignified and well-prepared president can’t escape the scorn. He’s a socialist, a Muslim and Kenya-born. (As though any of those would be a bad thing.)

The barber was a more appealing character than Lonegan, which made his view of his adopted country even more alarming. As he further explicated his initial statement, his conflict was apparent. He was cautious about using offensive terms, but he quite clearly and deeply resents the opportunities he thinks others receive, while he attempts to make ends meet as a barber who receives little respect. In his worldview, black folks can say and do whatever they wish with impunity, living on the dole, while he has to watch his tongue in a politically correct community and work long hours. He thinks women don’t know their place, are given vast privileges, and that children are coddled and rude.

I suppose Lonegan and the barber have a valid point. For many white men, life was indeed better when their skin color was a universal unearned privilege, when women knew their places in the kitchen and bedroom, and children respected their elders and spoke only when spoken to. A great many white men in my generation and previous generations had it mighty good, if you consider bigotry, power over others and myopia to be “mighty good” things.

We’ve all heard the expression, once directed at George Bush Sr., that someone “was born on third base and thought he hit a home run.” That apt comment is usually directed at the privilege that accompanies great wealth. But it is also true of white men generally, regardless of station in life. To some extent we all believed we achieved success on our own merits. Whether a U.S. president or a tool and die maker forged by an apprenticeship, we white males mistook our environment for a meritocracy when the game was actually rigged in our favor. Generations of white men succeeded in part by merit, but also at a cost to the women, people of color and others who were systematically deprived of opportunity.

The Israeli barber was almost endearing. He was polite and gracious, and I felt empathy for his story. He emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and struggled to learn the language. Striving to make a place for himself was not easy. And I have real empathy for the tens of millions of Americans, white and non-white, who are trying to piece life together in a dismal economy and an increasingly unequal society.

But I have nothing but scorn for people like Lonegan who prey on the vulnerability of poor white folks and immigrants by turning them against their fellow citizens — particularly against people of color who continue to carry the burden of centuries of relentless racism.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.