Most black men rarely get to experience, even vicariously, what it’s like to be a white man in this country.
I’ve been alive awhile now, but only truly understood the white male mindset once. It was 2006; Matt Lauer, the former NBC Today show host, was prepping for a television interview. He was bent over a coffee table, deep in concentration, reading a stack of papers as people around him set the lighting and sound. In an image that I would later watch on TMZ, the camera pushed in tight on his face. At one point, co-host Meredith Vieira walked over to collect her things from the table. She bent over Lauer and, as she did, he looked down her sweater as the camera focused straight on his face. “Nice sweater,” he said. “Keep bending over like that, it’s a nice view.”
That one brief moment was like a peek behind a curtain for me. It captured all the privilege and entitlement of what it must be like to be a white man in this country, in one instantaneous and sad moment. I thought to myself: “Ahh, so that’s what it’s like.” Being born white and male in the United States, compared to any other condition, state or circumstance, is like being wrapped in a blanket of privilege and limitless possibility. You can live where you want, send your kids to any school and you get paid more money for the same work other people do for less.
I was standing in a line at Starbucks recently and watched as the man behind me picked up a bag of cookies, opened them and starting eating them right there — before he actually paid for them. That’s a white man move. I’ve read Hillbilly Elegy, about the life of a family with Appalachian roots. The fact that the book was such a revelation and a shock to everyone helps prove my point. Ask any person of color who has read the book what they think about it. White opportunity is not the same as black opportunity.
I see white privilege playing out in the presidential election too. It is no surprise that someone like Pete Buttigieg would think he was qualified to be president. Only a white man would think that someone in his mid-30s, with no experience running anything of any great consequence, no federal government experience and a thin, marginal record in the military would be qualified to be president. Only white men think this way.
Women and people of color would not dream of running for the presidency on such a thin list of accomplishments. In fact, history has shown that when they do run, they are often overqualified for the job. Elizabeth Warren is a former senior adviser to a president who oversaw the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and is a sitting U.S. senator. Julian Castro, who has dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary, was a federal Cabinet secretary and a former big-city mayor. Kamala Harris was the California state attorney general and now serves in the U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump is the walking embodiment of entitled, political privilege. He was fully aware of his moral and professional deficiencies when he ran and ran anyway. Imagine a black man, or even a white woman, running for president after being accused of grabbing people by the genitals, having endured a slew of bankruptcies and running a campaign built on bold-faced lies and hate speech.
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It’s not just white males who feed this narrative. We all do. Whenever we elect a president who is not qualified for the job, we feed the narrative. The New York Times just published a comment from a fellow small-town mayor colleague of Buttigieg. “It is a little bizarre,” said Mayor Craig Thurmond of Broken Arrow, Okla. “Politics so often is about ‘Can you win?’ not ‘Are you qualified?’ I do think he has a chance to win. But being the mayor doesn’t qualify you to do that job.”
Mayor Thurmond makes a good point. What is it with Americans? Why do we, over and over, elect people who are not qualified to be president and then complain about it afterward? Take a moment and ask yourself, if you had to hire someone to manage your checkbook, educate your children and to watch your back while you slept at night, wouldn’t you want a person with a resume that demonstrates that they can actually do these things? When will we ever learn? Three years into Trump’s administration, I ask you all: How are things working out so far?
K. Ward Cummings (email@example.com) is a former senior congressional adviser and the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.”
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