Empathy for Angry White Men

04/03/2015 09:53 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

The video of a white male New York City police officer in plain clothes contemptuously berating a Middle Eastern Uber livery driver is a window into the anger of white men that requires us to question: Why are white men so angry?

The officer is not alone. Indiana governor Mike Pence's defense of his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) sanctioning discrimination against the LGBT community was tinted in anger and recrimination that people would assign the bigotry label to the law. Former Ferguson, Missouri police chief Thomas Jackson was angry when he announced at a press conference to name the officer who shot teenager Michael Brown that Brown had committed strong-arm robbery prior to the incident. And former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling exhibited palpable anger when, in apologizing for his earlier racist statements, he excoriated iconic African American businessman and philanthropist Magic Johnson, asking "what has he done for black people." Although unseemly, these instances of white male rage are understandable and will become more prevalent as they see the world they have so meticulously crafted give way to the forces of diversity.

As an African American, I have empathy for angry white men because I recognize that they are experiencing the pain African Americans have long borne -- of being bystanders to the shaping of their identities and possibilities in an uncertain world. White male privilege is under attack; its beneficiaries are understandably angry about it. White men are vilified for hogging power, denying opportunity, fostering elitist systems, and holding the country back. They are called racists and bigots for trying to maintain their vision of an America that is slipping away daily. Now, they are beginning to feel the stresses of "otherness" that has long been the Achilles heel of the oppressed. They are responding to protect their interests in a nation built for them that increasingly rebuffs them. They are losing the country.

By 2043, America, built on a platform of white male privilege, will be a 'majority minority' country. Immigrants will lead the nation's population growth, followed by Latinos, ushering in greater challenges to the status quo. By 2020, Millennials will out earn and outspend Baby Boomers, transferring economic and political power from older white men to a new generation of inclusionists. Gay marriage is sweeping the country, and the Supreme Court is poised to make it the law of the land. Finally, with a $17.7 trillion national GDP in which black, brown and gay Americans represent 21.5 percent or $3.8 trillion, a sum larger than the GDP of either Germany or Russia, the political power of minorities is being matched by economic power -- both of which have historically been deeply influenced by white men. The result is a diminution of privilege that challenges the identities and place of white men, causing the once self-assured to ponder: Who am I, and where do I belong?

We must understand that just as diversity lies at the intersection of life and living for those who value it, privilege is the basis of white male dominance. It informs everything from thinking to behavior to performance. And in its absence, the world is unknowable to those whose sense of self relies on it. Angry white men are faced with a philosophical conundrum: fight for the past or embrace the future. This position of uncertainty makes angry white men particularly dangerous. No longer segregationists, angry white men live next to or even with us. They attend our churches, serve on our school boards, lead our city councils, and run our police forces. They resent the social progress the nation has made. They may even resent you.

How can one spot an angry white man? There are several distinguishing characteristics.

1. They are "anti" -- anti-diversity, anti-immigration, anti-feminism, anti-LGBT rights, anti-liberalism.

2. Although they do not advance racial diversity, they tout inclusion because they appreciate its exclusionary properties.

3. While some are overtly caustic, most act out their anger in microaggressions -- nonphysical attacks intended to diminish a person's humanity and value -- which are a cornerstone of bias.

4. They want to turn back the clock on social progress.

Here's what angry white men need to do.

1. Admit you have a problem. You're mad as hell.

2. Recognize the impact of your anger on those around you. Your anger likely has given way to biases that have resulted in denial of dignity and opportunity to others. You may even nurture hostile environments.

3. Work to resolve your biases. One way to understand your biases is to critically examine your preferences, as they will tell you what or whom you are prejudiced against.

4. Decide if you want to spend your energy fighting change, or position yourself to thrive amidst it. If you want to fight a losing battle, remain angry. But if you want to thrive in a changing America, embrace diversity.

The rest of us must not be dissuaded from the pursuit of our dreams by the hostilities of angry white men. Neither must we allow our hearts to grow cold to their suffering. Anger is debilitating. So is revenge.