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Mediocre Explanations

Ijeoma Oluo's new woke broadside doesn't explain much about how the world works today

Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre, 336 pages, 2020.

If a 1050 or 1100 SAT score is “mediocre,” what exactly does that make a 946? 

This one question illustrates the biggest problem with Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre, which I would half-jokingly sum up as a splendid breakdown of U.S. racial dynamics in 1964. Simply put, Oluo’s claim is that American culture – from the cowboys of the past to the footballers and tech bros of today – is largely guided by average-ass white men who really shouldn’t hold their positions: undeserving beneficiaries of racial privilege, academic legacy status, and probably free pastel sweaters on demand from Ralph Lauren. A New York Times review of the book describes it as “showing how white men’s mediocrity – entitlement tethered to unearned power and accolades – makes life harder for everyone.”  Shielded from the true harshness of life by these social cushions, Oluo and Times-woman reviewer Brittney Cooper argue, white males can lead society while mostly managing to escape “cultural outrage and accountability.” 

Eh. While genuinely well-written and sometimes hilarious, Oluo’s book often seems to ignore or minimize many of the major trends in U.S. race relations during the last 5-6 decades: successful minority immigration, massive institutional affirmative action programs, the Great Awokening and constant popular criticism of whiteness, etc. To give the most obvious example, one of the most visually remarkable, if under-reported, cultural shifts from my grandfather’s era to today is that business much below the C-suite, professional athletics, and the heights of “cool” culture ARE no longer dominated by whites. 

According to official U.S. Census data widely reported across portals like Wikipedia and Britannica, the highest-earning group in the United States is not whites at all, but rather Indian Americans, with a median (household) income of $135,453. Second place goes to Yanks of Taiwanese descent, sitting pretty at $102,328. All told, twenty minority ethnic groups currently place ahead of the median white household income of $65,902: Americans of Indian, Taiwanese, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Nepalese, Singaporean, Pakistani, Iranian, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Korean, Nigerian, Cambodian, Hmong, Vietnamese, Ghanian, Turkish, and Laotian descent. 

The same is true across many other fields discussed in Mediocre. Oluo argues, engagingly if not always convincingly, that a white male conception of “muscular Christianity” was responsible for the development and popularization of sports like competitive football, which influence the American zeitgeist to this day. But, the tempus: it’s gonna fugit. The hugely influential NFL is today 68% African American and just 28% white, with the other 4% of gladiators broken out between “Asian/Pacific Islander, non-white Hispanic, and mixed race” athletes. Nor are the Black players of today mere “scrubs,” backing up elite talents like Aaron Rodgers and JJ Watt. The gaming site fantasypros.com ranks Black men in six of the ten top slots even for the stereotypically white quarterback position, with Patrick Mahomes (1), Lamar Jackson (3), Kyler Murray (4), Seshawn Watson (5), Dak Prescott (6), and Russell Wilson (7) all making the cut.

Oluo briefly attempts to spin even this success as racist, noting that Black men often sacrifice “their bodies…and minds” on the altar of professional football. But, logic reminds us that this was at least as true when all NFL players were white and helmets were made of shoe leather – and we African-Americans also make up 74.4% of the hardly brutal (and even higher-paying) NBA. For good measure, roughly one-third of the 2019 winners of music’s coveted Grammy Award were Blacks or other “POC” – a list including Drake, Childish Gambino, Pharrell, and Cardi B, although not for her new cult classic “WAP.”

None of this, of course, means whites don’t win their share of honors during mooooostly friendly inter-group competition in the modern USA, or dominate certain sectors of society – or for that matter that contemporary racism does not exist. Jokes about boating and herb gardening aside, certain sectors of business are still primarily pale preserves at the senior levels. According to Statista, just 5% of companies had an African American CEO in 2018 – although a surprising 30% had an Asian American CEO and 19% had (primarily Caucasian) Hispanic CEOs. However, Oluo’s claim that many or most of these senior white position-holders today are “mediocre(ities)” who might not deserve their spots takes on an unusual gloss in light of another prominent modern-day phenomenon – nationwide, institutional affirmative action. 

Having been both a white-collar businessperson and a tenure-track academic, I must say that the neglect of affirmative action in the academic and public-intellectual literature dealing with “white privilege,” and race relations more broadly, is one of the more remarkable and telling oversights in modern scholarship. As Sander and Taylor point out in their book Mismatch (2012), a primary goal of virtually every serious university (and Fortune 500 corporation) is bringing in annual incoming classes that roughly mirror the overall demographic breakdown of the U.S. population. And, given massive differences in “board score” performances on the SAT and GRE – much of this gap, no doubt, due to past conflict and abuse – doing so in practice requires the adoption of significant pro-minority double standards. 

In a representative recent year (2017), the mean Mathematics SAT score was 462 for Black test-takers, 477 for Native Americans, 487 for Latinos, 553 for whites, and 612 for Asian Americans. Black kids did a bit better on the Reading section of the exam, but overall group breakdowns were similar – and these gaps among solid students taking the primary aptitude test linked to college admission are obviously mirrored on most collegiate campuses, to the benefit of minority applicants. While none of these scores are horrific by global standards, and more U.S. students than not merit a spot at some college, it is more than a bit odd to argue that only the white kids taking the exam experience “privilege,” and may not quite deserve to end up where they do. 

Oluo, in fact, rather often describes ‘imperfect post-Eden human behavior,’ of the posting-middling-SAT-scores variety, as very specifically white male behavior. She accurately notes, for example, that Joe Biden has more than a few awkward quotes in his past, and famously once weakened his support for busing and school integration to remain viable as a politician. More sweepingly, she points out that: “We have white men holding major political office who believe that global warming is a hoax. We have white men holding major political office who believe that racial integration is bad for America.” She argues, not unfairly given recent events, that identity politics can exist on the Caucasian right and left: “Centering the needs of progressive, working-class white men is identity politics.” 

Well, sure. That’s not even wrong, and a lot of it was worth reading. But, it is laughably easy for a non-racist conservative to counter. Neither being amoral nor saying silly things is a uniquely Caucasian characteristic. Joe Biden’s literal running mate, the Black and Indian-American Kamala Harris, famously implied that Biden is a racist and that she currently supports busing during a heated debate between the two – and later laughingly admitted she did so only because “It was a DEBATE.” She also, apparently, recently plagiarized Martin Luther King (!) in order to claim that she has publicly advocated for “fweedom” since infancy. As re: the more serious points Oluo touches on, we also “have…in America” minority women and men who believe that the country’s true founding date was 1619, almost everything that made the USA unique grew from slavery, and preserving slavery was the “primary” cause of the Revolutionary War. I know these arguments so well, bizarre or not, because the New York Times recently gave the 1619 Project which made them a national platform. 

A corollary of Oluo’s implicit argument that white male failure and corruption are not merely real but somehow unique is her explicit argument that white men face a singular absence of criticism for their lapses. As per the NYT review quoted earlier, her claim is that hommes blanc including businessmen, professional athletes and team owners, and politicians left and right often “manage to escape cultural outrage” due to whiteness. This accusation has been leveled notably often of late by woke folk. Perhaps most famously, Robin d’Angelo contends in her best-selling text White Fragility that Caucasian Americans are “fragile” because – unlike still-oppressed People of Color – they are almost never called to account for racial gaffes or sins. 

Perhaps, again, this was once true. However, again, this allegation seems far out of step with the tempo of the times. Constant criticism of whites, particularly white males, often seems to be the full-time job of half the media and much of academia. A joking search for “white men BAD” on 01/03/2020 turned up dead-serious mainstream press articles with headlines like “The Problem of Surplus White Men (resilience.org),” “White Men Are Bad (belfercenter.org – this one largely sardonic),” and “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person (Duke Medical School),” as well as a critical Wikipedia article on the ‘Angry White Male’ and a Washington Post editorial pleading with whites to read d’Angelo’s book. Oluo herself makes the top 20 results, with her book cited as an example of “why it’s time for white male mediocrity to lose its power (NBC News).”

There are far more serious illustrations of this same point. As per the Post’s excellent “Fatal Force” database of police shootings, roughly 50% of those fatally shot by police officers in a typical year are identified as white, and 7-8/10 are not identified as Black. However, as per an in-depth multi-hour search by myself and a research assistant, this ~75% majority of all cases of serious police violence receives perhaps 20% of all media coverage of the topic. On a deeper level here, violent inter-racial crime involving Black and white Americans constitutes a tiny 3-5% of serious U.S. crime (all violent crime, major/Index property crime) – and Blacks generally commit 80% of that. However, once again, mainstream media coverage focuses on this fringe problem constantly, and focuses most intently on the miniscule white-on-Black minority of cases. “Coupon Carl,” “Pool Patrol Paul,” and white officers involved in altercations with Black suspects would no doubt be surprised to hear that pale males cannot be criticized. 

A better title for Mediocre might be All Too Human. Almost literally no one denies that white men, as a group, have a racist history, are capable of identity politics (like everyone else), and have produced some epically foolish politicians. But, it seems simply inaccurate to claim that members of this one group still control all of modern global or even American business, are more likely to receive “unearned” collegiate slots than POC in the affirmative action era, or are the primary advocates of identity politics today. Today, the best way to treat a white person or a person of any other hue is probably as I – believe it or not – approached this review of the flawed but engaging Mediocre: ready to give fair individual judgment in a single instance. 

Wilfred Reilly is an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University and author of the books Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War and Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.”

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