04/25/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

White Rage

With the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin turning another corner, and George Zimmerman finally charged with murder, I can't foretell where the law will take us. At this time, we can allow this story to demand that we call out the horrors of violence and prejudice wherever they are rooted. Some of this is based in race dynamics; some in power, in fear, in ignorance. But it's also rooted in apathy. It's rooted in gun laws that make it easy for civilians to pretend they're heroes in their own minds. (According to the 911 tapes: The teen started to run, Zimmerman reported. When Zimmerman said he was following, the dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that.") But he did it anyway. It's rooted in always giving the benefit of the doubt to the assailant when the victim is a person of color -- knowing the reverse seems rarely true.

The race dynamics are complicated here. Zimmerman was first described by the police as white, but his own family identifies as Hispanic. Regardless of the perceived color of the assailant, the civic, legal and political responses here are typical for how those entities deal with many black Americans. I am no longer shocked by the inhumane responses we've heard from pundits and leaders alike defending the gun laws. Geraldo Rivera said, "I'll bet you money, if he didn't have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way..." Or Glenn Beck's web-based attempt to link Trayvon Martin's suspension from school to a fantasized criminal record, implying but not directly saying he may have deserved to be killed. Or Newt Gingrich's attempt to turn this into a political moment for himself by falsely claiming President Obama was playing a race card, calling the president's off-the-cuff words "disgraceful."

Pulling back from the story of Trayvon Martin, where do all these reactions come from? Why is there a desire to pretend we treat all victims the same? Why do we feel the need to say folks who dress a certain way are inherently more dangerous? Why do white pundits try to fabricate criminal records for black children? Where does the rage come from in some white people?
I believe it's in part sourced in the crossroads between the myth of the American Dream, and the pain we feel when things that used to go our way stop seeming to go our way. Then we project onto the world the drama that's going on inside our heads. The American Dream says that if you work hard enough, you'll achieve financial success, a house, and 2-point-something children. For some people that's still true. But it seems like it's true for less and less of us. And yet, we still want to believe that if we work hard enough, we'll get there -- all on our own.

Or for those who have succeeded by working hard, there's a inclination to want to say, "Well, I did it. So could you. And if you haven't yet succeeded, it's just because you didn't work hard enough." And sometimes that's true. Sometimes, misfortune is tied to lack of effort or skill. But there's a whole range that's in between. It's not always, or even often, either/or. Then there's what I call the shifting landscape. The financial realities of working-class Americans is different now than when this American Dream was fabricated -- or even in its heyday. It directly affects how those who were raised with privilege react when they no longer seem to have the same opportunities their parents had. We often hear this described by conservatives as the decline of family values, or the collapse of the morals of plain old hard work.

In a Feb. 10 opinion post, New York Times economist, Paul Krugman talks about this perception. He writes, "For lower-education working men ... entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent." He goes on to point out that, "much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas." He concludes with the rhetorical question, "you would expect something similar to happen if another social group -- say, working-class whites -- experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has." Essentially, the White Working Class sector is suffering financial hardships in ways it hasn't in generations (not that any other working-class group is doing well). And I notice that at the same time, there is an influx of conservative outrage over the agency of women's bodies, the definition of marriage, and now, the right of individuals to chase teenagers with hoodies down the street with a gun despite 911 saying "We don't need you to do that."

We see this financial decline for the working class since 1973, the same year as the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade. It's a social conservative fantasy that if only we went back to that world where certain people were in charge (men, whites) all this would get better again. Ignoring all the safeguards and parameters that were once in place back then -- unions, better benefits, shorter work weeks, less disparity between the richest and the poorest, less need for the expense of graduate education to succeed or even be employed and the list goes on. And the white working class, which these days some would say feels the same as the white middle class, is wrestling with a rage we don't exactly understand. Rage because things that were once easy aren't any longer. Rage because we're experiencing financial hardships that other racial groups have had to live with generationally. Rage because we might be coming to realize that our own success may have less to do with our own actions, and more from the privilege of our skin. And we just don't want to be told that.