When does black power start?

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Where Has All the Power Gone?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The kids feel powerless. At Yale University, they suffer racial slights, real and imagined, and learn a lesson reliably taught to strivers of every generation: You can reach the heights without ever finding the little door that leads to the center of things.

At the University of Missouri, where blacks are 8 percent of the student body, one percentage point less than at Yale, there's less ivy to camouflage the hurts. When you find a picture of a lynching tacked to your dorm room, the aggression doesn't qualify as "micro."

The adults, too, feel powerless. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, they agree, by a 54-41 landslide, that "the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” It's even worse for the old and white and conservative. The late October poll offers perhaps the best insights on the nation's broad disquiet:

Some 71% of GOP primary voters agreed when asked whether they felt “out of place” in their own country and uneasy about widespread illegal immigration, the shrinking role of religion in public life and the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian rights. Among these GOP voters, 45% strongly agreed with that view, compared with just 12% among Democratic primary voters.

The U.S. is undergoing a remarkable transition accompanied by a vast and mysterious displacement of power. Average white men have been rapidly losing the status differential that for centuries elevated them above women and racial minorities. They have lost the expansive middle-class economy that, through the gleaming middle of the 20th century, brought them cars and paid vacations and college educations for their children. They have lost power, prestige and security. Not surprisingly, they are angry about their loss.

A steadily improving labor market, declining federal deficits and years of robust stock market gains seem incapable of lifting the gloom. Americans have perceived that the country is traveling the "wrong track" for years. An astonishing 4 percent of Republicans last month said they are "cautiously optimistic" about the economy. These are the choppy waters in which Donald Trump goes fishing for votes, promising to restore a stolen American greatness.  

Yet where did all that power, leaking out of male, white, culturally conservative America, go? It doesn't seem to have traveled across the racial divide and settled among the "coalition of the ascendant." A spate of protests on college campuses this month follows continuing protests against killings of black people by police. Micro-aggressions perceived by sensitive college students pale alongside the existential cry of "I can't breathe." But if the quality of grievances among town and gown are vastly different, they seem to claim a similar source: disrespect, marginalization, powerlessness.

As the young and brown jostle with the old and white over Obama and Black Lives Matter, over the Tea Party and Donald Trump, over, ultimately, who gets what in the 21st century, their worlds don't intersect much. But they powerfully influence one another nonetheless, with each group using the other's perceived transgressions as a justification for its own discontent. 

Beneath the conflict is a shared foundation. As former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich wrote, "a growing sense of powerlessness in all aspects of our lives – as workers, consumers and voters – is convincing most people the system is working only for those at the top."

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll puts Reich's observation in data form:

Indeed, 69% of poll respondents agreed with the statement that they “feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than working to help everyday people get ahead.”

White, black, brown, young, old -- it seems everyone is convinced of a similar truth. Someone around here has gotten their hands on all the power. And it isn't them. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net