How a Black President Stoked ‘White Male Fragility.’

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Did the election of the first Black president inadvertently create a climate harmful to women? Research suggests that may be the case.

In 2008, many Hillary Clinton voters found consolation in the fact that while there was not going to be a woman president, the first African-American in that job would support women’s issues. And that proved to be true,

But the election of Barack Obama stoked other, darker emotions  in a segment of the American electorate. A heightened sense of “White Fragility” has swept across the land like a cold New England winter wind, stirring up a nativism that many of us thought had been pushed to the fringes.

Charlottesville proved the “fringe”  idea wrong, as Klan members and neo-Nazis turned out in force at a rally at which a woman was killed after being deliberately struck by a car. Apparently, the sight of a black man holding actual power as the actual president of the United States struck a deep-seated nerve.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo of Westfield State University named the fear.  “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes  intolerable, triggering… anger, fear, and guilt. These function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”

Psychologically, the bubble of whiteness in which many Americans lived was punctured by Obama. There was a comfort level in a white power structure that seemed reassuring. You belonged to the dominant group, even if your job had fled overseas, and you couldn’t pay your health care bill. But you were still white. Suddenly, however, white dominance was no longer assured. As  the Atlantic’s TaNehisi Coates writes,”To Donald Trump, whiteness is not just symbolic,  but is the very core of his power. “

Maleness was anther hallmark of Donald Trump’s appeal.  Indeed, Trump has been consistently dismissive of women.  He called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman,” and claimed that Fox anchor Meghan Kelly  had “blood coming out of her wherever.” He has made demeaning comments about the female mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico and picked fights with the wife of a slain U.S. serviceman.

By feeding into what psychologists call “moral licensing,” (when a favored majority group performs an act of generosity towards an outsider), it doesn’t necessarily signal that more acts of generosity are coming. Sometimes it just gives them license to then go back to their old ways.

Maybe change does not beget more change. Maybe it’s the opposite. We often think that the progress women have made is permanently reshaping our social ecology. But the real message may be, “We gave you broads (or you Blacks or you LGBT folks, you disabled people, you Muslims, You Latinos) all this stuff, but enough’s enough. Time to go back to the way it used to be when straight white men ran things.”

Another stream swelling the Trump success is the media narrative that women are succeeding while men flounder. The bestselling book, The End of Men, argues that since women are filling more college seats than men, their success in school will lead to their taking over the best jobs in business, science, the law, medicine, etc. The author, Hanna Rosin, wrote that the U.S is fast becoming a “middle-class matriarchy” as women become the major breadwinners.

True? Not at all, In fact, the reverse is true. Women have indeed made enormous strides over the last 40 years, but those gains are slowing. Women are doing great in academia, but the workplace is a different story.

Women may earn more advanced degrees than men, but their wages still trail far behind. The think tank Catalyst reports that female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school. Female physicians earn, on average, 39% less than male physicians. Salary gains that female managers acquired in the 1980s and 1990s have dropped off, and in all sectors of the workplace, men’s salaries are pulling far ahead once again. Women start behind and never catch up. These facts—combined with Trump’s sexist campaign– should have triggered a female backlash against hm. It did not.

White women handed Trump the presidency, according to the Edison national election poll. The majority of non-college educated white women (64%) voted for Trump, while only 35% backed Clinton. More surprisingly, 45% of college-educated white women voted for Trump.

In this case, women were not voting because of white fragility, but because of  white male fragility.

Professor Kelsy Kretschmer of Oregon State University  co-authored  a recent study of women’s voting patterns. She writes,  “Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s economic dependency on men. Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status. We know white men are more conservative, so when you’re married to a white man you get a lot more pressure to vote consistent with that ideology.” These women may see more equality for women as hurting their husbands, rather than as benefitting themselves.

The upshot is that we have a long way to go before an American woman wins the presidency. Married white women need to feel more economically empowered before they vote for a female candidate rather than for the perceived interest of their husbands. And since the Trump administration seems determined to wipe out the gains of the past in terms of workplace protection, reproductive rights and support for women and children, that day may be a long time coming. 

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