The popularity of books about race, from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist to Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility, shows no signs of abating. The latest entry, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, purports to be a history of the havoc wreaked by white men. In it, author Ijeoma Oluo describes her hatred of white cowboys and white football team owners and white Bernie Bros and something she calls white “muscular Christianity.” For every problem in America, past and present, Oluo has identified a single villain: “That source is white male supremacy.”
According to Oluo, it is everywhere, and it’s personal. In a single paragraph she leaps from complaining about “the white men who talked over me in meetings” to “the white male lead in a movie who sits in his cubicle and laments his lot,” and on to “the white men wearing swastikas in Charlottesville, angry about their own failures and shouting about the people they blamed for them.”
The book is less social analysis than it is fan service for those already steeped in anti-racism ideology. As an interviewer on the black-themed Medium site, Zora, wrote, “I felt validated while reading this book,” noting, “We all know the system is rigged but Oluo offers a few more fascinating and underreported footnotes for your stash.” Oluo assured the interviewer, “I want this to be a book that helps battle the collective gaslighting regarding White supremacy.”
Oluo embraces a line of argument that has gained in popularity with the mainstreaming of critical race theory: This reasoning blames “systemic racism” for any human challenge that doesn’t produce ideologically approved results. Outcomes not directly proportional by race in C-suites across the country? Blame systemic racism. Fifty years of institutionalized affirmative action programs still not yielding perfect proportionality in higher education? Blame systemic racism. Annoying male colleague interrupts you at a work meeting? Systemic racism! Even completely mundane observations about a white male politician like Joe Biden (he changed his policy position on busing to maintain power), when run through Oluo’s race theory grist mill, becomes proof of systemic racism, rather than what it really is: how politicians operate.
Of course, this isn’t a game everyone is allowed to play: No one would publish a book by a white man that blamed complicated social problems on the behavior of a few “angry black women,” for example. Nor should they; such sweeping and simplistic conclusions about a racial group are textbook examples of racism and would add little value to the public conversation.
Yet Mediocre lays blame on an abstract “system” of white supremacy that is ever in error while its “victims,” like Oluo, are never in doubt. As she told Fast Company, “It’s about the systems and not the individuals, and we have to do the work.”
And yet Oluo herself has done quite well in this supposedly flawed system. Although not quite the star Kendi is, she has had a previously bestselling book about race and enjoys frequent, flattering media treatment, speaking engagements, and, as she notes, cushy writing fellowships.
Nevertheless, in interviews she frequently complains about how difficult her life is: “When you’re a Black woman doing this work, you’re exhausted. I was living 2020 and finishing up this book, and it was a lot,” she told Fast Company. Her exhaustion stems from having “to work twice as hard” as white men, she says, adding, “There’s a violence to that, even in the everyday occurrence—knowing that you can go to work and never be appreciated for what you do, or that you’re going to have to keep picking up the messes of white men who are never held accountable.”
Her cavalier invocation of violence suggests a stunning lack of self-awareness. She describes an enviable experience—“an idyllic women’s writing retreat”—where she was given time and space to work free from the stresses of day-to-day life. And yet, at the end of each day, how did she and her fellow female writers choose to spend their time unwinding? “We talked about shitty dudes,” she writes. “We talked about how much time we had spent writing about shitty white dudes . . . There is an abundance of bad guys to be found just about everywhere, and we can’t seem to stop talking about them.”
Since Oluo’s book adopts the tone of score-keeping, it’s only fair to note the achievements as well as the harms of some these white men; they didn’t bequeath only mediocrity, after all. The nation’s Founding Fathers created a system of government that allowed for later challenges to the institution of slavery and women’s disenfranchisement, for the expansion of equal rights, free speech, free association and freedom of religion. Generations of engineers, inventors, soldiers, ministers, and fathers, however mediocre and white Oluo might find them, fought for and protected those rights, often at the cost of their own lives.
Though a savvy marketing choice, making her book about white men misses a simpler truth: Most of us, regardless of race or sex, are mediocre. Excellence is rare, which is why it should be celebrated regardless of where we find it.
And what’s wrong with mediocrity? America’s promise has long been the opportunity it gives people to do the best they can with the talents they’ve been given, and then the right to be left alone to enjoy the rewards of their hard work. A nation of responsible, hard-working citizens, however mediocre Oluo might judge them, is still far freer than the aristocracies and rigid caste systems of the Old World—and has proven itself capable of building on that promise to offer equal opportunity to anyone willing to seize it.
Evidently, it’s now a rite of passage (or a masochistic thrill) for elite white liberals to reject that promise and instead “do the work” of reading books denouncing white people en masse. Those who write these books and those who read them form a dysfunctional, closed circle wherein criticism is impossible—if you object to Oluo’s (or Kendi’s or D’Angelo’s) claims about injustice, then your objections are themselves proof of their claims of your racism. Such an ideologically spurious approach to race might make for good Twitter rants (Oluo proudly describes herself as “an Internet yeller”) and book royalties. But, ultimately, they yield only misguided policies and a more polarized public sphere.