The Blurb On The Back:
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power
White men lead our ineffective government with almost guaranteed re-election.
They lead our corrupt and violent criminal justice system with little risk of facing justice themselves.
And they run our increasingly polarised and misinforming media, winning awards for perpetrating the idea that things run best when white men are in charge.
This is not a stroke of white male luck; this is how our white male supremacist systems have been designed to work.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
You can order MEDIOCRE: THE DANGEROUS LEGACY OF WHITE MALE AMERICA by Ijeoma Oluo from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Ijeoma Oluo is a journalist and best-selling author. This book draws on US history to provide a devastating examination of the USA’s systems which created and reinforce white, male mediocrity as a means of retaining white power. It is clearly written and makes a lot of interesting points but is very US-centric and although it discusses intersectionality at length, I wondered how much of this is grounded in patriarchy more than in race.
Oluo uses a number of historic case studies to explain how white male identity was constructed within the US and how that then impacts on modern America. She starts with the Old West and Buffalo Bill (William Cody) who helped create the myth of how the West was won with its idea of rugged white manhood and played on and profited from prejudice towards indigenous people. This in turn influenced Theodore Roosevelt who was a big proponent of Muscular Christianity and whose own prejudice against indigenous people led to the creation of the first National Parks. Oluo then draws connections between the treatment of indigenous people (including by Mormon settlers in Utah) to the modern Bundy family, which famously occupied Government offices in 2016 after a campaign against grazing charges and relies heavily on cowboy myths to promote their aims. It’s a really strong opening chapter that taught me a number of things I had not previously been aware of with regards to the Old West, especially the reason why buffalo were targeted for hunting.
She moves on to exploring white men who seek to centre social justice movements on themselves by looking at two early male feminists – Max Eastman and Floyd-Dell who were writer activists who became successful in their own right and ended up turning against the movements they initially supported so loudly. It’s a damning exploration of the hypocrisy of two men whose self-serving hypocrisy has parallels with so many ‘nice guys’ today but it pales into the background compared with Oluo’s scathing take down of Joe Biden’s views on bussing, where he ended up holding two contradictory views on bussing and desegregation when he was first elected as a Delaware Senator in the 1970s and ended up helping to broker a bi-partisan deal with known white nationalists. I was dimly aware of this issue coming up when Biden was running for the Democratic nomination ahead of the 2020 election but the pure political speak and double think going on in his ‘explanations’ are pretty nauseating and it’s surprising to me that he wasn’t pinned down more strongly on them on the national stage (albeit I suppose the need to find a credible challenger to Trump probably contributed to its being overlooked). I was more familiar with Oluo’s examination of the Bernie Bros, who I had heard a lot about during the nomination process ahead of the 2016 election and I think Oluo does a good job here of highlighting how Saunders just doesn’t get why race is an issue and how this is partly due to his politics entering on class.
Chapter 3 looks at higher education and again I learned a lot here that I had not previously known, e.g. how Woodrow Wilson was a colossal racist and how SATs started as a way of preventing Jewish students from entering elite US educational institutions. Similarly I had not realised that Reagan’s presidency had ended a lot of the funding for students, which disproportionately affected students of colour. Oluo expertly takes down arguments about higher education that right wing politicians and newspapers like to trot out, while simultaneously highlighting their hypocrisy as they seek to dissuade their voters from higher education while simultaneously seeking out the best education opportunities for their own offspring.
Chapter 4 was one of my favourite chapters in the book as Oluo looks at economic migration within the US following the Civil War and in particular the Great Migration and how the Southern states managed to damage their own economic recovery by trying to intimidate black Americans into staying while at the same time, white people in Northern states became increasingly hostile and violent to the black Americans moving there. I knew a little about the use of property bars to prevent black Americans from moving into white neighbourhoods, but Oluo does a great job of setting out the background to to the housing difficulties that black Americans face, including the coded language used to oppose affordable housing.
Also great is the chapter where Oluo turns to women in the workplace and how men structure workplaces to suggest that women are not a “natural fit” for them. What I particularly enjoyed about the chapter was the section on the part played by the Great Depression in terms of trying to remove women from the workplace and then her deep dive into World War II, which at first tried to encourage women into factories and then tried to push them back into the domestic sphere. However, the best section is where Oluo looks into how women executives are set up to fail by being put in charge of organisations that have been performing badly under white male leadership and then using their failure to turn things around as “evidence” that women should not be in chief executive roles.
Chapter 6 was a difficult read as Oluo draws on her own experiences of being Swatted and doxxed after the success of her first book SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE. It’s really horrifying to read about what happened to her and her family but she neatly uses it to segue into the broader point about how women (and especially women of colour) have to be unimpeachable in their backgrounds when they seek to run for office. Oluo uses this to explore Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1972 – something that I had only learned about a couple of years ago and which I had not realised saw her get sold out by feminist movements at the time who thought her unelectable. She also looks at the awful experience Lani Guinier had as nominee to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in 1993 when Bill Clinton ended up selling her out after a barrage of criticism and faux outrage due Republican claims that she wanted to bring in quotas for the voting process (which was not true at all). To be honest, there’s an awful lot that I didn’t like Clinton for before reading this but it did give me even more reason to view him as a gutless worm. Oluo finishes by looking at the so-called “Squad” of Democrat Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – in terms of how they got elected and their agendas on entering Congress. I knew a fair amount about these women before the section (in fact, I follow Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter) so there wasn’t a huge amount here that was new to me, but I did notice that Tlaib doesn’t get the same coverage that the other women get and although I agreed with Oluo’s point about the ridiculous criticism they are subjected to when they promote policies that seem pretty sensible, I did wonder if it would have made more sense to have focused on Ocasio-Cortez and Omar alone because it would have had more impact.
The final chapter focuses on American football, which isn’t a subject I’m interested in but Oluo builds up to the furore that surrounded Colin Kaepernick taking the knee by pointing to the racism that is riddled through the game (with special points for the return of Muscular Christianity). There are events here that I had not been aware of, e.g. the University of Missouri hunger strikes against racism on campus, which gained momentum when the University’s award-winning football team refused to play until the University President was removed only to see the State retaliate by reducing the University budget. It all goes to reinforce Oluo’s argument but, as a Brit, while I find the racism absolutely repugnant, the sport itself and its role in the US psyche isn’t something I quite understand.
While I very much enjoyed the main body of the book as Oluo writes fluidly, cleanly but with huge passion, I did find the conclusion (which looks at white manhood and whether it can improve) to be a bit of an anticlimax. Oluo looks at the phenomena of white men committing white shootings against people of colour but the conclusion then looks at a Carrah Quigley, a white woman whose father Bob Bechtel was arrested and convicted of murder and although there are suggestions that this is tied to white anger and bullying, by her own investigation Oluo realises that the explanation Bob gave to Carol do not fit with his own explanations of the time, making me wonder what the point is. It’s not helped by the fact that while I do not doubt Oluo’s point that white manhood is in a dark place, there is no suggestion here of how it can be turned around. I am not saying that it is Oluo’s place or responsibility to come up with an answer for this but I do think it’s a weakness of the book that for all the research done on black experience, there is no apparent attempt to engage with experts on whether this is something that can be fixed and if so, how. Instead Oluo focuses on how white manhood has to be resisted and the systems that support them changed and again, I’m not saying that this is not part of the solution but it does suggest that white men are not going to come to the table and puts the onus on people of colour, which, to me, seems like a potentially losing battle.
My criticisms aside, I think this is a strong and powerful book and one that you should definitely read if you are interested in what is happening within the US. I will definitely check out Oluo’s previous book on the strength of this one.