Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham once delivered an odd warning.
“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” he said, while attending the 2012 Republican National Convention.
No one is making that complaint anymore.
Lately, the news seems filled with grim mug shots of angry white guys. A white man allegedly kills two black people at a supermarket after failing minutes earlier to enter a black church. Another opens fire at a yoga studio, killing two people and injuring five more before turning the gun on himself. And a third is accused of massacring 11 worshippers at a synagogue, afterward yelling, “I just want to kill Jews.”
Yet during this same period, Trump and others have warned Americans of another threat: a caravan of Latino migrants headed toward the United States to seek asylum. They’ve alternately said the caravan is filled with gang members, “Middle Easterners” and even people with rabies. Trump also announced plans to deploy as many as 15,000 US troops to repel the “invasion” and warned that if any of the caravan’s migrants threw rocks at troops, they could be shot – a threat he later denied.
No one is saying the recent spate of shootings can be blamed on the GOP. But the contrast between the terror that many Americans actually experience and the specter of violence that Trump invoked is a classic example of an insidious form of racism that some say is pervasive, though seldom acknowledged:
Angry white men seeing “primitive aggressions” in others that they refuse to see in themselves:
White men warn the public about vicious Central American gangs invading the United States, even though white men have committed more mass shootings than any other group. Some white men say “radical Islamic terrorists” represent the gravest threat to America, even though far-right violent extremist groups are responsible for more deadly incidents in America since 9/11. Some white men, such as white nationalists who rallied last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, say they are in danger of being replaced by nonwhites, even though they still make up the vast majority of the country’s CEOs, billionaires and political leaders.
Psychologists have a name for this kind of pattern. It’s called projection and happens when people or groups of people project hidden or repressed elements of themselves onto others. But if you’re a member of a group that’s been deemed “the other” by an angry white man, like Ijeoma Oluo is, this pattern is business as usual.
There is nothing more frightening to her than an angry white man, she writes in an essay that went viral called, “The Anger of the White Male Lie.”
Oluo wrote that she constantly lives with the fear that the anger of white men can turn violent toward her and “countless other black people, brown people, disabled people, queer people, trans people, and women of every demographic.”
“Oh, it’s really everywhere,” says Olou of this anger. “Every single day it becomes more of a problem.
“We have pipe bombs,” she says. “We have shooting in synagogues. It’s literally killing people.”
A sin as old as the nation
This may sound like hyperbole. But no one is saying that all white men are inherently violent or that they are the biggest threat to America. To make sweeping generalizations about any group is to make the same mistake that racists and anti-Semites make.
Some nonwhite men are responsible for violence in America. Four of the most recent terrorist attacks – in San Bernardino, Boston, Chattanooga and Fort Hood – allegedly were committed by Muslim terrorists. And, of course, the September 11 terrorist attacks were committed by Muslims.
Yet there is a surprising body of work in literature and psychology that speaks to this tendency of some white people – in particular, white men – to quickly see the face of terror in an “other.” They do so by projecting some of the uglier, repressed aspects of themselves onto others.
This form of racism as projection is part of what the author James Baldwin wrote about in his essay, “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” He wrote that the racial tensions menacing America “are involved only symbolically with color.”
“These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted – and apparently, to him, unspeakable – private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro.”
This form of projection formed the psychological backdrop for slavery.
White male slave owners in the United States described their slaves as hypersexual beasts who craved sex – while they raped enslaved women and tortured enslaved men.
White male slave owners called slaves lazy and shiftless – while they sat on porches sipping mint juleps watching them work from sunrise to sunset.
This was the form of projection that the late Winthrop D. Jordan described in a classic book on race that looked at the history of white attitudes toward race and slavery called, “White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812.”
“White men were attempting to destroy the living image of primitive aggressions which they said was the Negro but was really their own,” Jordan wrote.
But this form of projecting is not confined to race. It fuels anti-Semitism, says Kenneth M. Reeves, a psychologist and author of the paper, “Racism and projection of the shadow.”
The Nazis justified their genocidal treatment of Jews by labeling them greedy money-grubbers – while collecting gold fillings from the teeth of Jewish corpses, Reeves wrote.
“The Nazis said, ‘Look at the Jews. They’re rapacious.’ And then they went around looting the wealth of Europe,” Reeves told CNN.
One of the deadly aspects of projection is that those who do it are often unaware of what they’re doing, Reeves says. He says projection is so common that it is a “universal daily drama” that prevents a person who is doing the projecting from really seeing “the other” in their full humanity.
He wrote: “The world and its inhabitants are not seen and understood for who they are, but as supposed by evil and wicked mirrors of one’s own unknown self.”
The receiving end of white male anger
When yours is the unwilling reflection in such a wicked mirror, the issue isn’t abstract. Understanding it, even if it’s only instinctive, can be the key to survival.
As a black man working in a corporate setting, I’ve noticed a pattern about large and dark men of color. They de-emphasize their physicality, often stooping as they smile excessively and even raise the pitch of their voices so it won’t sound too commanding.
You don’t want a white man projecting his need to dominate onto you, so you adjust your behavior.
Sometimes it happens with a woman who is seen as “angry” by a white man.
After Oluo wrote her essay on white male anger, a white man wrote her a fuming letter, telling her to be “less angry.”
“He says ‘less angry,’” she wrote, “as if I am not currently adding his email into a file with countless other long-winded missives, dismissals and violent threats from white men who decided to take the time out of their day to let me know in sometimes very disturbing ways that they need me to be ‘less angry.’”
But this form of projection goes beyond the personal; it shapes our politics.
There are people who divide America between red and blue states, but the true fault line may lie between angry white males and the rest.
Sen. Graham may no longer have to worry. The Republicans are becoming what some call the “Angry White Male Caucus.” Already overwhelmingly white, the GOP is seeing a departure of women. Some blame it on the party’s general attitude toward the #MeToo campaign and its support of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was recently confirmed to the court after accusations of sexual assault, which he denied.
Indeed, the Republicans have become so associated with white male anger that one humorist recently suggested “Americans would feel safer if a huge caravan of angry white men left the country.”
Why white men are so angry
The Rev. Gibson Stroupe knows something about white male anger. He says he was once gripped by it. He grew up in the segregated South, where he says he used the N-word and remembered once hatching a plan as a teenager to grab a hunting rifle with his friends to harass a man who was attempting to integrate a university in Mississippi.
He says he changed because of his faith combined with forging interracial friendships. He has written extensively and lectured widely on racism.
He sees some of the anger he once felt in how some white men reacted to the election of the nation’s first black president.
“That was pretty shocking to a lot of us white people, especially white males,” says Stroupe, author of “Deeper Water: Sermons for a New Vision.” “We’re not accustomed to African-American men having power over us.”
He says one of the ways that some white men deal with that fear is projecting their own violence onto black men.
“White men recognize how much we’ve done to black people, especially black men,” he says. “Our longing to hold onto our guns so tightly – we do believe if black men get power over us they’re going to do to us what we’ve done to them.”
This form of projection has become a powerful political tool, says the Rev. Fred Robinson, executive director of MeckMin, a non-profit interfaith group that sponsored an interfaith service in Charlotte, North Carolina, to support members of the Pittsburgh synagogue that was attacked.
Political leaders who project give whites someone to blame when they struggle, he says.
“Scare the rank-and-file whites to believe that somebody else is the problem: Jews are the problem. Blacks are the problem. Mexicans are the problem. Homosexuals are the problem. It works magically because it’s baked in our cultural narrative,” says Robinson, an associate pastor at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in Charlotte.
Robinson says he can envision a future where some angry white men will create an apartheid-like political system in the United States where they are able to hold onto power despite becoming a racial minority.
“The nation will become more bifurcated and will descend into these tribal spaces that I don’t think will be good for us,” he says. “I do anticipate a lot more pain.”
And more replays of the psychological drama that lurks behind some of the nation’s most tragic events.
That would mean more white male anger. More warnings of the “others” invading the United States. More attacks as some white men see others as “wicked mirrors” of their own hidden selves.
In that kind of world, there won’t be any shortage of angry white men.
And for those who are part of “the other,” it means one thing: We will continue to pay the price.