White Men Can't Catch a Break

In the wake of both the Imus flap and the dismissal of the Duke rape case, you’re going to hear a lot of middle-class white people, or conservatives complain about political correctness and the culture of victimization it engenders. But I think that often what people are complaining about is that folks aren’t paying enough attention to how much their lives suck. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a self-constructed narrative in which they have overcome obstacles, in which there was some set of forces arrayed against them that they bested. And when people with at least moderate amounts of success and material comfort see empathy given to other groups who have been insulted, or recriminations directed against those who did the insulting, they really feel slighted. Why doesn’t anyone give me sympathy for the fact that my mother was an alcoholic, or that my parents were immigrants, or that my father had a job that embarassed me at school?

The reason something like the Imus flap and the Duke case are so explosive is because they force us to think about, in a sublimated way, the phenomenon of privilege, and merely considering it makes people freak out. Because no one wants to think they are a product of some set of socio-economic forces. Admitting that seems to do a deep violence to our sense of self. So someone asks: why was it not OK for Imus to use language that black rappers use all the time? And the answer, in short is that Imus is a rich, white man, and to understand why that matters you have to start talking about the phenomenon of privilege and the history of racial oppression and that’s when a lot of people start rebelling.

We are conditioned, perhaps by evolution, certainly by culture, to view our accomplishments as our own, and our failings as the work of other forces. But the fact is that much of what we accomplish is the product of both social and economic forces and as well as sheer randmoness and luck. This is a deeply unsettling view, and I think that is it the unspoken, implicit proposition that surfaces during highly charged conversations about offensive speech, the distinction between offense and harm and any discussion of the of the structural impediments to success that certain groups qua groups face in America.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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