Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo – Here are my seven lessons and takeaways

Mediocre• For now, let’s journey through the creation of the white male America we are living in today. • Let’s look at how today’s results come from our past decisions.
• Let’s look at how the glorification of white male aggression brought about the brutality of westward expansion, how the disdain of women workers exacerbated the Great Depression, how the fear of racial integration drove the Great Migration, and many more examples of how white male America was built and solidified at a devastating cost.
• “Works according to design.” This is a comment that I and many of my fellow racial justice commentators have made when truly horrible things happen, just as they were intended to. …Although the phrase may seem alarmingly coldhearted, it is our way of reminding ourselves that the greatest evil we face is not ignorant individuals but our oppressive systems. It is a reminder that the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland are not isolated cases.  
• Blatant racial terrorists — while deadly and horrifying — have never been the primary threat to people of color in America. It’s more insidious than that.  
• Our entire society is built to ensure that white men hoard power.
• The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all. 
• This is not a benign mediocrity; it is brutal.   
• White male identity is not inborn — it is built.   
• I worked backward. I started looking for their earlier incarnations, through each generation, at every turn of our country’s past. …I started to see how time and time again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress.
• These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated. …How it attempts to perpetuate itself — in our education system, our sports teams, our businesses, and our politics.
Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America

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I have a problem.

I have recently read a book that was difficult to read. I don’t mean hard, as in I didn’t understand it, or get it.  I mean difficult as in this was painful to admit and deal with.

And, I know that the very title itself turns off many readers.

But…my problem…I really think you should consider reading this book.  How do I get you to do that?

The book is Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo.  I presented my synopsis of this book at the April, 2021 Urban Engagement Book Club.  It is a book about…racism…sexism…hierarchies.

It is a book about a relatively small circle of inclusion surrounded by large circles of excluded people and groups.

There are a lot of books reinforcing the views of this book in one way or another.  The one that first jumps to mind is Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson.  (See my blog post for that book here).

But this book, Mediocre, tackles the story with a plenty-broad brush, and with some very pointed criticisms of white males especially.

Before I share its key points, let me state this:  before you dismiss the book, thinking it is unfair to white men, please consider reading it.  It is worth reading.  And, it might make you think that yes, America has been too partial to white men in positions of simple participation, to positions of influence and leadership.

And, here is one thing that jumps out at you about this book:  it speaks of the mistreatment of every group in America that is not the dominant group of white men.  Native Americans; women; Black people; other people of color; other groups in the minority.  They all were harmed, overlooked, and in many ways abused by the dominant view that white men alone should run things; should run everything.

And, if you love sports, especially football, this book has quite a section about how violent football was (and; is), and how racism kept Black players out of American football for so very long.

As always, in my synopses, I ask What is the point?  Here is the point of this book:  Because people of color, and women of all ethnicities, are kept out of so many places and jobs and responsibilities, we are deprived of their offerings, and we are “stuck” with the medicore white men that fill those roles and places.

Why is this book worth our time?

#1 – This book is a comprehensive short history of the exclusion and horrific treatment of:  Native American people, Black people, women… of everyone except white men.
#2 – This book is a reminder that until this is truly changed, we have a substantially dysfunctional government, which is deprived of great wisdom and great talent that could help things improve for the good of all.
#3 – This book does not provide a quick and easy solution; but it does point to steps that we can take to make things truly better.

I always include many Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best from this book:

• This book is dedicated to Black womxn: You are more important than white supremacy. 
White men lead our ineffective government with almost guaranteed reelection.  …This is not a stroke of white male luck; this is how our white male supremacist systems have been designed to work. 
• The “male supremacy” in white male supremacy has been in place in white culture since before white people thought of themselves as white. 
• “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” When writer Sarah Hagi said those words in 2015, they launched a thousand memes, T-shirts, and coffee mugs. The phrase has now become a regular part of the lexicon of many women and people of color—especially those active on social media. The sentence struck a chord with so many of us because while we seemed to have to be better than everyone else to just get by, white men seemed to be encouraged in—and rewarded for—their mediocrity.  
• Rather than risk seeming weak by admitting mistakes, white men double down on them. …white men repeat that a change in leadership is somehow “too risky” to entrust to groups that they have deliberately rendered “inexperienced.”   
• What I do know is that the impact white men have been having on my life and the lives of so many others is not new.   
• The rise in popularity of Muscular Christianity in the United States and Europe during this time gave white male elites a religious mandate to conquer both rugby fields and battlefields. This fear of the “feminizing” of young American elite men led to calls for stories of “strong, brutal men with red-hot blood in ’em, with unleashed passions rampant in ’em, blood and bones and viscera in ’em.”   
Health care discrimination, job discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline, educational bias, mass incarceration, police brutality, community trauma—none of these issues are addressed in a class-only approach. A class-only approach will lift only poor whites out of poverty and will therefore maintain white supremacy. 
• And yet we are told that our struggle for inclusion and equity—and our celebration of even symbolic steps toward them—is divisive and threatening to those who have far greater access to everything else than we can dream of.
• By the time Southern leaders changed tactics and decided to improve working and living conditions for Blacks instead of antagonizing them, it was too late. The Southern cotton industry was in shambles.
• Black people, as slaves, were property. We were wealth. And like any other form of wealth in a capitalist system, we were hoarded by the elite few.
• When Black people migrated North, whites forced them into areas of concentrated poverty and misery. Then they pointed at the conditions Black Americans were living in—pointed at their desperation—and harnessed it to justify further discrimination. 
• The definition of success for a middle-class family was a man who earned enough money outside the home to support the wife, who raised his children.
• Hostility toward women workers and workers of color did not start during the Great Depression, but even during that white-man-made disaster, white men diverted a sizeable amount of time and resources to ensuring that women and people of color understood that the American workplace—whether it be factories, plants, or offices—was only for white men.
• College aid was offered to Black veterans, but it was moot; the vast majority of US colleges and universities refused to accept Black students, and those that did accepted so small a number that most Black veterans were unable to use the tuition benefits. …Homeowner’s assistance was of even less use to Black vets, since banks refused to work with Black buyers, and cities redlined Black families into neighborhoods designed to keep the return on their investments as low as possible. 
• The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as “leadership material”—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as “strength and leadership” can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. 
• Twenty-seven percent of people who were killed by cops in 2015 were Black, even though Blacks make up only 12 percent of the overall population. In addition, cops are four times more likely to use force in their encounters with Black people than they are with whites.

Here are few of the other points and lessons I included in my synopsis:

  • About Ijeoma Oluo
  • a Black American woman, with a father from Nigeria, and a mother from Kansas (the mother is white).She was born in Denton, TX, and is based in Seattle.
  • A thought from Randy about this author, and this book…
  • Trevor Noah, in an interview with the author, described her books as: “they don’t come from a place of hate, but rather a place of determination; a place of forcefulness where something needs to happen…”
  • Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman candidate for president.
  • She stood for women’s rights, ending the war in Vietnam, campaign finance reform, environmental protections, congressional term reform, the protection of individual rights against government surveillance, police reform, veterans’ benefits, minimum family income, and more.
  • Not only was Chisholm Black, but she was dark-skinned, broad-nosed, and she dressed like, well, a Quaker schoolteacher.
  • Almost immediately, the racist tone was set when a campaign worker traveling with boxes of campaign flyers received them back from airport security with the words “Go home nigger” scrawled across them.
  • Whereas Chisholm’s candidacy had been ridiculed and dismissed, the white male candidates (McGovern and Nixon) ended up making history for their embarrassing levels of incompetence and corruption.
  • The problem:
  • Government is not working well.And, white men have been, and are, in charge.  Therefore… mediocre white men rise to power, stay in power; and government continues to be ineffective.
  • These injustices are not passed down by God; they are not produced by any entity greater than ourselves. These oppressive systems were built by people—with our votes, our money, our hiring decisions—and they can be unmade by people.
  • It is that many white Americans are so invested in the political exclusion of people who are not white men that they will actively work against any political change that would meaningfully enfranchise women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people
  • The myth of meritocracy:
  • This country’s wealth was built on exploitation and violence… Much of this country’s early infrastructure, for example, was built with slave labor. Those who profited off that labor did little more than be born with a whip in their hand. But nevertheless we crafted a story of greatness around them.                            
  • Many of these are not nice men…
  • Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics. — The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes.
  • The wealth gap:
  • The average Black household in the United States has one-thirteenth of the net financial worth of the average white household; the average Hispanic household has one-eleventh.
  • Gradualism has not worked…
  • How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not “shock” society? — So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly?
  • So many racist tools were put to use…
  • housing covenants; red-lining; open discrimination (no Blacks allowed into our universities; our neighborhoods; our workplaces….)
  • (Portions of) The Book:
  1. Cowboys and Patriots: How the West Was Won – Wild Bill Cody (Buffalo Bill), “Indian scalps,” and American “leaders” destroying the tribes of Native Americans. — In Cody’s show, white men were noble and brave. They fearlessly tamed animals and fought savages. – And, a horrific chapter in Mormon history, killing (massacring) Native Americans (the Paiute people).
  2. For Your Benefit, in Our Image: The Centering of White Men in Social Justice Movements — e.g., Joe Biden is both for, and later against, busing.  …The Ivy League and the Tax Eaters: White Men’s Assault on Higher Education —  It is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.—Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, to a Black man inquiring about admission.   …But until recently, Princeton didn’t talk much about the less savory aspects of Wilson’s legacy. The fact is that Wilson was a racist. He refused to allow a single Black student into Princeton during his tenure.  – The SAT was created by an advocate for and researcher in Eugenics… – The GI Bill was basically not available for Black people.
  1. Fire the Women: The Convenient Use and Abuse of Women in the Workplace — For centuries, Western society has tried to keep women out of the workplace. Men have ruled over government, offices, mills, plants, cubicles, and more—the domains of power—while women worked at home.
  2. Go Fucking Play: Football and the Fear of Black Men – (Brutal football) The Smithsonian detailed some of the injuries recorded during a particularly brutal college game in 1905: “Four concussions, three ‘kicks in the head,’ seven broken collarbones, three grave spinal injuries, five serious internal injuries, three broken arms, four dislocated shoulders, four broken noses, three broken shoulder blades, three broken jaws, two eyes ‘gouged out,’ one player bitten and another knocked unconscious three times in the same game, one breastbone fractured, one ruptured intestine and one player ‘dazed.’ …There is no more difference in compromising the integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classroom. One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us. — Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, 1956
  • Some thoughts from Randy:
  • Maybe less arrogance, a touch of humility, and genuine empathy, and active work for those who are “different,” might go a long way… But…it will also require policy changes; and true systemic change.
  • Some lessons and takeaways:

#1 – White supremacy – white male supremacy – is at the center of the entire discussion.  (The belief that:  White men are more capable than any other group, and they alone deserve to be at the top of any hierarchy).
#2 – Racism is real, and ever-present. (And sexism; and…)
#3 – Racism and sexism are more than personal, individual wrongs; such wrongs are society-wide, systemic wrongs.
#4 – This racist and sexist reality deprives us of genuinely talented people, and burdens us with too many mediocre white men.
#5 – Since white men never quite say or acknowledge (or even grasp) “I am primarily working for the benefit of white men,” then this has to be identified and called out.
#6 – Since white men primarily work for the benefit of white men, why is it not ok for women of color to work primarily for the benefit of women, and men and women of color?
#7 – We simply have to make things better by inclusion, denouncing the ever-present exclusion. White men can no longer be allowed to have all of the top spots in every arena.  This has to change.

I have been presenting synopses of one book a month, every month, for over fifteen years, for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare.  Currently we are meeting over Zoom.  Though some of the books were better than others, it is the accumulation of what we are learning that has made the difference.  America has been racist; and has been tough on many groups of people, including poor people.  And those realities are still omnipresent.

We’ve got much work to do!

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Click here to see the line-up of books for the rest of the year.  The Urban Engagement Book Club meets on the third Thursday of every month at 12:30pm (Central Time) over Zoom.  Come join us.

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