The privilege of whining about white male privilege

President Barack Obama addressing the White House press corps in 2013. Yes, there are women and people of color. But the crowd is still overwhelmingly white and male.

You’d think we wouldn’t need to say this out loud in 2018, but obviously, we do: White men who are miffed that someone else besides them is in charge need to get over it.

Because any slight that any of them has ever felt pales in comparison with what the rest of us have put up with for our entire lives.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has been getting a lot of deserved backlash for a tone-deaf column he posted with the headline, “Privilege is real. But being a white man shouldn’t disqualify me.

Cohen is a reliably conservative columnist at the Post. His readers know where his point of view is coming from. Apparently he’s still angry that he was passed over for a newsroom position 40 years ago and that he was told, “We needed a woman.”

I said nothing, although I seethed. In short order, I was made a columnist, so I didn’t even get a chance to cry. But the instant rush of utter unfairness lingers. The woman chosen was qualified, but her qualification had nothing to do with her sex. I was told she was just a needed statistic.

I guess he can’t process the idea that maybe the woman was chosen because she was a better fit for the job and he was being told words to make him feel better. That the publication needed a broader perspective than what he would be able to offer. That readers might want to see faces looking at them from a column photo that looked more like them, rather than exclusively pale males.

Well, he got his column and he’s been writing it ever since, from the perch of one of the nation’s leading newspapers (and has been well-compensated for it, too). He’s hardly “disqualified.” So on behalf of the women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and any other minorities who have been passed over time and time again for jobs for which they have been qualified, let me just say:

Richard Cohen, shut the fuck up.

Did I say that Cohen has been getting a lot of deserved backlash? No, he’s being excoriated. He’s being put in his place, both politely and with plenty of snark.

Consider this from Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens:

It’s likely that editor — or someone above him — decided to publish the best newspaper possible, and he determined that doing so with half the population’s eyes and ears and voices mostly missing was proving difficult.

It’s likely that editor — or someone above him — understood that women’s dollars count the same as men’s, and the newspaper ought to try getting its hands on some.

It’s likely that woman made the newspaper better in a way that Cohen could not. …

Thankfully, we’ve evolved. And so should our understanding of what fairness demands.

It doesn’t demand that you get every single position you want. It demands that your qualifications are weighed equally next to the qualifications of another person.

And if the table is already filled with what you would bring to it, fairness demands that someone else is offered a seat.

Elle has a collection of how Cohen has been getting skewered on Twitter. Among my favorites:

Matthew Yglesias at Vox brings us details of Cohen’s past writings and experiences about race and women, and how those feelings might be feeding his current diatribe.

  • He followed up on the same theme decades later, writing in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman that racial profiling is good: “If young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.”
  • Later that year, he discovered that being enslaved was bad after watching 12 Years a Slave but counterbalanced that with a column observing that “people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.”

There was also the time back in 1998 when he allegedly sexually harassed Devon Spurgeon, at the time a 23-year-old editorial aide. He has obviously continued to write his column for the past 20 years, and he and his powerful friends in journalism cast him as the victim in this situation.

Enough about Richard Cohen and his sordid past and writings. Let’s look instead at a 2017 report from the Women’s Media Center on “The Status of Women in U.S. Media” and see if Cohen’s complaints hold up (spoiler alert: they don’t). Yes, there has been progress, but the still-low number of women in positions of power in media has actually dropped in some areas.

Men still dominate media across all platforms—television, newspapers, online and wires—with change coming only incrementally. Women are not equal partners in telling the story, nor are they equal partners in sourcing and interpreting what and who is important in the story. …

At 20 of the nation’s top news outlets, men produced 62.3 percent of news reports analyzed during a studied period while women produced 37.7 percent of news reports. … Additionally, in the broadcast news sector alone, work by women anchors, field reporters and correspondents actually declined, falling to 25.2 percent of reports in 2016 from 32 percent when the WMC published its 2015 “Divided” report.

It’s even worse for women of color in media. Despite the brilliance and success of Joy Reid, most of the faces in the news business are still white and male. Women in Media’s 2018 report, “The Status of Women of Color in U.S. Media,” contains data of discrepancy:

Women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, and 6.2 percent of local radio staff, according to industry research that is based on news organizations’ replies to professional association queries.

We all know that some white men feel they’re getting a raw deal—it’s one of the big reasons why Donald Trump is president (Cohen points out that Trump received 63 percent of the white male vote). Trump’s entire campaign was based on playing to the racist fears of white voters about the “other.” Yet for every anecdote about some white male not getting a promotion, there are volumes of stories about women and minorities who suffered the same fate.

Cohen writes:

Some of the resentment in the white, male electorate is based on the conviction that the deck is suddenly stacked against them. That’s Trump’s constituency, right there. … Someone has to tell those guys how deceived they are, how they have benefited all these years from being male and white. Forgive them if they do not understand.

Yglesias answers:

There’s a phrase I learned a few years back that goes, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.”

Cohen’s career, I think, exemplifies the wisdom contained in that aphorism. He’s a guy who’s enjoyed a well-compensated, high-status, easy-to-do job for decades who nonetheless quite sincerely feels put upon by the fact that he lost a job to a woman sometime in the 1970s and sometimes get called a racist because he thinks young black men should be subject to discriminatory treatment.

He feels, on these grounds, a profound affinity for Trump voters. And because the demographic of put-upon older white men does, in fact, exert disproportionate influence over American social and economic institutions, there continues to be a well-compensated and not very taxing job for him into his late 70s.

White men aren’t being arrested at Starbucks while waiting for a friend. White men aren’t missing out on jobs because they’re attractive and “too big a risk,” as life coach Tony Robbins claimed in denouncing the #MeToo movement as a platform for women “to gain significance.” White men aren’t on the losing end of the pay gaps between genders and between races. And the obvious: Unarmed white men don’t get shot and killed by police at the same rate as do unarmed black men.

These facts are incontrovertible. The fact that they’re still true in 2018 is despicable. But obviously, they need repeating. So once again, I say:

Richard Cohen, just shut up already.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 22, 2018.

One Comment on “The privilege of whining about white male privilege

  1. Excellent post and analysis, Sher. My hero Glen Greenwald long ago outed Richard Cohen and since then I’ve come to realize how obnoxious he is. John

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