Tom Tate was the relatively inexperienced and lightly trained sheriff of Monroe County, Alabama, when he and his deputies arrested Walter McMillian and charged him (ultimately) with the murder of Ronda Morrison. Tate was involved in falsifying evidence, coercing testimony, violating incarceration procedures, obstructing judicial processes, and depriving Walter McMillian of six years of his life spent on Alabama’s death row.
Tate was held responsible for his conduct to a limited degree through a civil suit, but the amount of the settlement was not commensurate with the misconduct. “Adding insult to injury,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy, “Tate went on to be re-elected sheriff, and he remains in office today [at the time of the book’s publication]; he has been sheriff continuously,” Stevenson notes, “for more than twenty-five years.”
When members of our anti-racism book study group read this story, several asked the outraged question: “How could this happen?” In her book, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, Ijeoma Oluo offers this answer. “To be a white man – a straight, abled, cisgender white man – in public office means never having to say you’re sorry and still getting re-elected.” Sheriff Tate is one example among thousands to illustrate Oluo’s contention.
I read Mediocre in the immediate aftermath of the attack on and attempted lynching at our nation’s capitol on January 6, 2021. Oluo begins the book with the realization that the domination of our systems of power by modestly functional white men is not a breakdown in the system. Instead, it means, as she notes, that the system “works according to design.” This is the case because the system has been designed by and for precisely those of us who are mediocre white men. We saw that system in full flower on January 6.
This is the first challenge of the book for me and my companion mediocrities – to be open to the critique and to look ourselves honestly in the face. The images and reports from the halls of Congress noting that grown men were stealing podiums, smearing feces on hallway floors, taking selfies in the Speaker’s chair, and expecting to go home and get back to work as if nothing happened – these were exhibits A through Z of Oluo’s thesis. As reprehensible as I find those actions, I must admit (if I am even a bit honest) that those fools and idiots look a lot like me.
“White men lead our ineffective government with almost guaranteed reelection. They lead our corrupt and violent criminal-justice system with little risk of facing justice themselves. And they run our increasingly polarized and misinforming media, winning awards for perpetrating the idea that things run best when white men are in charge. This is not a stroke of white male luck,” Oluo concludes, “this is how our white male supremacist systems have been designed to work.” Given the events of the last week or so, one is hard-pressed to dispute the point.
Oluo does not spend all or even most of her ink on this diagnosis, although it is central to the book. Instead, she works through an inventory of cultural institutions where whiteness, maleness, and white maleness are hallowed historically but leave a hollowed-out husk of personhood for those who are supposed to benefit most. She takes us from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the frontlines of police violence, from working for social justice to working in American’s boardrooms, from Ivy League business schools to the NFL sidelines. All of these wobbly and dangerous systems have been designed by white men for the benefit of white men.
Works according to design.
I was grateful for Oluo’s clear, confronting, and concise guidance and challenge in So You Want to Talk About Race? I would recommend that book as well in a continuing pursuit of anti-racism education and reflection. Mediocre, however, is a superior work. Oluo writes with pissed-off passion and historical depth. She is delightfully sharp-tongued and has no tolerance for bullshit from anyone. While I (as an example of white, male, supremacy) am a subject of description and investigation in her work, never once did I feel hated.
That is perhaps what I found most remarkable. Oluo reports on the emails, letters, phone threats, and other assaults on her life and, potentially, her family. She notes that she has been victimized personally by mediocre white male supremacy every day of her life. She documents how this system works according to design to police and persecute, to limit and lynch, to exploit and exhaust women, Black people, Brown people, and especially Black and Brown women. She demonstrates and documents voluminous evidence to justify her disgust and contempt.
Yet, that’s not what I got. Outage and anger, judgment and demands for repair, clear-eyed descriptions of the utter and arrogant stupidity of the system of white male supremacy – yes, all of that is in these pages in abundance. But I also found a knowing acknowledgment that white men, stupid and selfish as we can be, suffer from this system as well. That’s not sympathy or excuse, but rather a simple description of the massive contradictions we white men enforce and endure in order to maintain our power, privilege and position.
“The system was set up to appear to serve the average white American man while simultaneously working against the best interests of the majority of Americans, regardless of race or gender,” she writes. “But even the pretense of representing the ‘average white man’ holds more appeal than political ideas offered up by those who aren’t white men, even when those ideas could better serve white men.” We mediocrities can’t even recognize the damage we do to ourselves in this system.
That being said, we mediocrities suffer so little and inflict so much suffering. We have forced Black migrants into ghettos, redlined them to keep them there, deprived them of credit and housing, and then blamed them for being poor. We have weaponized white fear to maintain political power to the point that the entire democratic system teeters on the brink of collapse. We have deprived ourselves of the skills and talents of two-thirds of the human population among us and then describe women as weak and Black and Brown people as lazy and dangerous.
We have restricted access to every positive program in the twentieth century — the GI Bill, VA benefits, FHA financing – among dozens of others to make sure that wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The results have been twofold. White men are still one rung up on the socioeconomic ladder above the other groups. But we are all a thousand miles below the one percenters who continue to accrue and concentrate wealth and to distribute poverty.
We only allow women and Black and Brown people to be in charge of things that either don’t matter or are likely to fail. “Women and people of color are often only given the opportunity to steer the ship,” she notes, “that white men have already rammed into icebergs. Then, when the ship sinks,” Oluo concludes, “the media reports that women [and people of color] make bad captains.” The system of white male supremacy expects women to stay home and cook and people of color to clean toilets and play football.
But in the end, the system doesn’t really work according to design. Mediocre white men continue to fall further and further down the socioeconomic ladder. Oluo describes the white male rage that comes from this fall: “the expectation that many white men have that they should have to climb, shouldn’t have to struggle as others do. It’s the idea,” she writes, “not only that they think they have less than others, but that they were supposed to have so much more.”
The result of this rage goes in one of two directions. Some of us conclude that we are broken, failed, and useless. She points to the rising suicide rate among white men as an indicator of this result. In far more cases, some of us conclude that others are to blame and that we have somehow been robbed. “In a world where many people of many different races and genders are bullied, where many people feel left out and overlooked, it is white men who are choosing to turn that pain and fear into self-harm and murderous rage far more than almost anybody else in America.
This describes much of what we saw on January 6, 2021, in the nation’s capitol. In addition, Oluo described the weird harassment campaign she endured at one point in her work. Some trolls declared that since she was so “down on white men,” they’d show her. They would go ahead and kill themselves just to spite her! This is the textbook example of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Oluo is fairly sure that the threats were hoaxes, but they indicate the state of mind induced by the failure of the system of white male supremacy in the hands of mediocrity. “Nobody is more pessimistic about white men,” Oluo concludes, “than white men.”
I’m in no position to critique her work. I’m one of the subjects of it. I don’t take it personally, any more than I take a glance in the mirror personally. If I see something in the mirror, it must be there. And I have the choice to do something about it or not. I hope other mediocre white men will read and take seriously what she offers.
We can do better.