President Donald Trump helped the nation reach a rare moment of racial reconciliation, but hardly anyone noticed.
It was sparked by a recent White House photo op, when Trump gathered with Republican leaders to celebrate the House passing a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The event looked like the board meeting of an all-white-male golf club. Photos from the ceremony showed a phalanx of middle-aged white men heartily congratulating one another, with no woman or person of color in sight.
Some photos released later did show some women at the event. But the surplus of white testosterone in the images sparked widespread outrage. One critic tweeted: “Message from another white guy: Yes, this is way too many white men in one place.” Another white guy complained about a pattern of “overwhelming white maleness” in Trump administration photos. Someone even started a hashtag: #governmentsowhite.
Lost in the criticism of those images, though, was something to celebrate: Many white people now get uneasy about seeing too many white guys in positions of power. The notion that the nation’s leaders should look like the people they represent is becoming widely accepted.
4 days, 5 moments in race relations
May 18: A man assaults a stranger for speaking Spanish: Hector Torres was talking to his mother on the phone at the Reno airport, when a man started yelling profanities and assaulted him. May 19: New Orleans mayor delivers a remarkable speech on race. After his city removed a monument to a Confederate Civil War hero, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the Confederacy was on the “wrong side of history.” May 20: A white Mississippi lawmaker calls for a lynching. State Rep. Karl Oliver made the comment on his Facebook page while denouncing the removal of Confederate monuments. He later apologized.May 22: Video of a woman’s racist rant against a Latino shopper goes viral. The white woman in a Sprint store in Virginia calls the Latino shopper a “f#$$ sp#c.” May 22: A Walmart shopper goes after two women of color. The white shopper in Arkansas told a Latino woman to “go back to Mexico” and called an African-American woman the N-word.
But could the Trump administration make images of white men wielding all the power seem normal again?
It’ll never happen, says historian Jerald Podair – the United States is too racially diverse. The Trump Rose Garden photo bothered Podair but didn’t change his view about the nation’s future.
“Whites will not look at an all-white picture again and just take it for granted that it’s normal,” says Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “The demographic changes in America are continuing and inexorable.”
But what if the white male throwback optics aren’t just annoying, but dangerous?
Many people said this country would never return to the days when white people would casually sling the N-word at African-Americans in public; curse out Latinos for speaking Spanish; and openly call for a lynching.
But it has. All of that actually took place over the past seven days in America.
We’ve entered an era in which traditional rules no longer apply.
Stop blaming all white men
There’s a growing belief among some conservative white men that they are persecuted for their skin color. If, say, you’re a white, unemployed factory worker in Wisconsin looking for a job, you may scoff at talk of too many white men in one place.
John Hawkins, a conservative blogger and columnist, says white men are blamed for everything from slavery to denying women the right to vote.
“We live in the strongest, most powerful, most prosperous nation in human history and if we’re being honest, white men probably deserve 95% of the credit for that,” he wrote in a 2016 column entitled, “When Did White Men Become The Bad Guys in America?”
“That may be unfair because women and black Americans weren’t given the opportunity to significantly contribute for most of our nation’s history, but it is true.”
Hawkins says the images coming from the Trump administration look the way they do because the Republican Party is predominantly white.
“Republicans have just done a poor job of attracting minorities,” says Hawkins, author of “101 Things All Young Adults Should Know.”
“Part of it is our fault. We’ve done a terrible job of outreach.”
Some powerful Republicans defended the White House photo. During an interview with Andrea Mitchell on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said critics mischaracterized the optics of the event.
Mitchell had asked Price why so few women were at the ceremony, particularly since the Republican health care bill would allow insurers to opt out of providing basic benefits to women such as maternity coverage and birth control.
Price told Mitchell to look again at the photo.
“Andrea, come on. Look at that picture. Congresswoman Diane Black, the chair of the budget committee, I was standing next to her. Seema Verma, the administrator of CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services], I was standing right next to her.”
To which Mitchell responded: “Out of a group of dozens and dozens of people, you can cite two or three women?”
How to stage white male power
The anger generated by the White House photo op is bigger than the debate over health care, though. The photo evoked the experience of millions of Americans for centuries. Countless images in history books, movies and politics sent the same message to women and people of color: You don’t matter, but we do.
That message is still being sent today by the optics of who holds the power in the US. White men make up 31% of the nation’s population, yet 65% of its elected officials. They out earn all groups of women – white and otherwise – as well as black and Hispanic men. Only Asian-American men out earn white men. Most of the nation’s Fortune 500 CEOs and board members are white men.
Many people take it for granted that white men should be in charge, studies show. If, for example, you step onto a commercial flight and see two women in the cockpit, is there a part of you that would feel safer with two white men instead? When someone says “doctor” or “CEO,” what are the first faces that come to mind?
Anyone who says images of white men in power can’t be normalized again forget how normal it still is, says Howard Ross, author of “Everyday Bias.”
Ross saw this normalization in action when he delivered a recent speech on diversity at a meeting of health care leaders. About 75% of his audience was men. When audience members lined up to ask questions after his speech, he noticed an odd pattern.
“Who gets up to run the microphones? Six women. Not a single man among them,” says Ross, who started Cook Ross Inc., a diversity consulting firm. “That’s an optic that nobody was paying attention to. That reinforces the notion of who has access to power and who doesn’t have access to power.”
The images of the people Trump surrounds himself with sends the same message, many say.
Trump has assembled the least diverse Cabinet in 36 years. Most of his picks are rich, white men. It is the whitest cabinet since President Ronald Reagan’s in 1981 and reverses a trend that accelerated under the Obama administration. Former President Barack Obama created the most “demographically diverse administration in history.”
White men don’t just have more seats in Trump’s Cabinet; they have more access to the President himself, according to a recent Politico article that tracked public reports of his interactions at the White House and other locations.
And notice who normally flanks Trump when he signs documents in other White House photo ops. It’s usually men who look just like him, says William Falk, editor of The Week magazine, who wrote about Trump’s optics in an article entitled, “Too Much Testosterone.”
“Every time President Trump signs a new executive order, he is surrounded by dozens of grinning aides, congressmen and industry CEOs, nearly all of them white, male and over 50,” says Falk, who has joked about being a white man “for as long as I remember.” “Is there a message there?”
The message is one of power: White men are back to running America and there’s nothing you can do about it, says Gordon Coonfield, an authority on visual communication at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
He says the White House photo op with Trump and Republican leaders celebrating the passage of their health care bill wasn’t accidental. It’s “strategic.”
“These are not a bunch of bumbling old white guys who don’t know better,” says Coonfield. “They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s a certain staging of power. An image of a bunch of white guys seeking to undo health care coverage for millions of Americans sends a strong unambiguous message about whose interests are being represented and whose are not.”
The message that Trump and Republican leaders are sending subverts the rules of politics and PR: Appeal to the broadest demographic audience, says Andrew Blum, founder of AJB Communications, a public relations firm in New York City.
“It was horrible optics, but they’re getting away with it,” Blum says of the White House photo op. “It’s an amazing turn.”
If Trump was a bar of soap
There are those, though, who say that while Trump and the Republicans may be able to pause change, they won’t be able to stop it.
Most of America will reject any optics that evoke white male dominance, says Podair, the historian and author of “City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.”
He points to the narrowness of Trump’s electoral victory as evidence. Almost 3 million more Americans voted against Trump than for him in the presidential election. Trump squeaked by only because of the peculiar nature of the Electoral College, he says.
The corporate world, for example, is less forgiving than the political one, he says. Companies routinely craft images that appeal to the widest and most diverse audiences.
“There are no Electoral Colleges in advertising,” Podair says. “If Trump was a bar of soap, the advertising for Trump soap would not have worked – more people would have not bought his product.”
Others say the president who preceded Trump doomed any chance of rewinding the clock. Obama, the nation’s first black president, made it normal to see people of color – as well as women, gays and lesbians – in positions of power, they say.
It’s strange to suddenly see so much white maleness in the White House, says Lisa Fritsch, an activist and author who lectures on diversity.
“Obama definitely set a new level of decorum for the office and with that a higher standard for diversity and inclusion,” Fritsch says. “He’s made this White House seem peculiar and out of place in America.”
Others point to the wrath of social media. People no longer passively accept images that exclude them. They go on the attack when they spot offensive images.
“As certain groups got bigger and more educated, we felt like we had the right to complain,” says Nancy A. Shenker, founder and CEO of theONswitch, a marketing firm. “Social media allowed for a certain sense of anonymity, and people who felt like they were discriminated against started to speak up.”
Any optics centered around “a bunch of white guys” won’t resonate with contemporary Americans, says Nate Regier, an authority on organizational development and author of “Conflict Without Casualties.”
“America is diverse, period,” he says. “Anyone who denies it or acts as if it isn’t true will be left behind economically, politically and socially.”
There was another recent photo, though, that challenges the idea that certain images are now unacceptable.
After the city council in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, white nationalists mobilized.
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader, led rallies in Charlottesville earlier this month protesting the pending removal of the statue. He tweeted a photo of himself with a torch. A column of torch-bearing white men chanted, “You will not replace us.”
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer saw Spencer’s photo and took to Twitter to criticize the rally. He was attacked with a torrent of racist and anti-Semitic tweets including one that said, “I smell Jew.”
Consider those optics:
Photos of a group of white men holding torches at a nighttime rally; white men massing to protect the honor of another white man who fought to maintain white supremacy; ominous threats delivered publicly to those deemed belonging to a lesser group.
This, too, was an image of white men that was supposed to be consigned to the past.