Title: Mediocre

Author: Ijeoma Oluo

Completed: June 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: There aren’t a lot of authors I return to for new books. Many seem to cover similar topics in a slightly different light and present it as something completely new. Ijeoma does not. She presents a similar message is in each that I’ve read, “The systemic racism in America is hurting everyone and we all need to work to rectify it.” But each book presents that message in a unique way and she includes new examples each time. Depressing as it is that she has so many examples to select from, she again weaves them into a compelling story in this book and I’m sure I’ll be reading another one of her books soon.


  • I am not arguing that every white man is mediocre. I do not believe that any race or gender is predisposed to mediocrity. What I’m saying is that white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.
  • How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?
  • White male identity is not inborn—it is built. This identity is not designed to be its most intelligent, most productive, most innovative self. The aspirational image of white maleness is meant to be far less than that. Elite white men don’t need actual competition from rising and striving average white men. Instead, this status becomes a birthright detached from actual achievement. It is an identity that clings to mediocrity.
  • help solve the “Indian Problem” once and for all. Sheridan reached out to William Tecumseh Sherman, who had distinguished himself with his scorched-earth battle tactics during the Civil War, for advice. Sherman observed that wherever buffalo existed, there would be Native people, and they would continue to fight for land wherever the buffalo roamed. Sherman’s advice to Sheridan was simple: remove the buffalo in order to remove the Indian. “I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all,” Sherman wrote to Sheridan.
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, white men in England and the United States began to worry about their young men. These young men had it too easy; their wealth and comfort had made them soft. In the United States, a country still fighting to retain the land it had stolen from Native people, this softness could threaten the expansion of America across the continent. The call for white men of America to maintain physical power was not just political; it was a spiritual calling. The rise in popularity of Muscular Christianity in the United States and Europe during this time gave white male elites a religious mandate to conquer both rugby fields and battlefields. According to practitioners of Muscular Christianity, physical softness in men had undermined traditional masculinity and had led to intellectual and moral softness.
  • “Masculine” theater, dime novels, and adult male fiction steeped in grit and violence known as “red-blooded realism” became increasingly popular, in large part due to the threat of the widespread success of women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner (whom author Nathaniel Hawthorne dismissed as a “damn’d mob of scribbling women”),13 and of plays geared toward women audiences.
  • “This continent had to be won,” Cody wrote. “We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”18 Manly men were quick to sing the praises of a stage show that opened with the scalping of an Indian and then moved through gunfights, horseback riding, cattle roping, and more fantastic feats of masculinity.
  • After three days, Ryan’s mother relented and began making lunches from home again. Nothing says “American” like a boy making a woman struggle so that he can seem independent.
  • The land was promised to the Paiute people by the federal government in 1872. But the government had no interest in keeping white colonizers from settling there. The Paiute people took their grievances to the US government, and they were rebuffed. White settlers were incredulous that the Paiutes thought they had any right to the land. An editorial in the Idaho Statesman summed up the popular opinion toward Native claims on land: “The idea that the Indians have any right to the soil is ridiculous.… They have no more right to the soil of the Territories of the United States than wolves or coyotes.”
  • Max Eastman was a founder of the New York Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which sounds pretty cool, right? However, one of the first things Eastman did was make a promise to the men who signed up that “no member would be called upon to do anything. The main function of the league would be to exist.”8 In the battle for women’s suffrage, in which women literally fought and died, men become heroes by simply existing.
  • When Biden, a young, liberal Northern senator whose star was on the rise, came out strongly against busing, it gave other liberal senators permission to do the same. Instead of a stance taken only by the likes of George Wallace in order to preserve white supremacy, antibusing as framed by Biden became an issue that white liberals could stand behind without questioning their racist motives. The majority of Black voters at the time still supported busing to desegregate schools, but their concerns were drowned out by the wants of the white majority.
  • Fewer students overall were entering colleges to join the clergy, but the vast majority of students were still white men from elite families. Universities were seen more as finishing schools for wealthy white men on their path to inheriting leadership than places for practical education. In fact, early degrees were often awarded in graduation ceremonies that recognized the students not by order of achievement or even field of study but by family rank.
  • Lowell claimed that he was not antisemitic or racist; he just believed that the increasing number of Jewish students would drive away students who were antisemitic.
  • Brigham’s test was quickly rolled out to high schools and by 1926 was used by many colleges and universities across the country to help them select students most likely to find academic success in their halls. But by 1930, Brigham had rejected his own eugenics-based tests. He’d found some fundamental flaws in his methodology. In particular, he had come to realize that what his tests showed, instead of intelligence, was the test-taker’s ability to speak English, attend good primary schools, and demonstrate a strong familiarity with white culture. He wrote a refutation of his earlier army research in a paper titled “Intelligence Tests of Immigrant Groups” and later denounced the SAT tests that he had based on that research, but by then it was too late.
  • When the Great Recession hit, higher-education budgets were among the first items to be cut as state budgets plummeted; overall, states collectively reduced their annual education funding by $9 billion in the years 2008–2017. Colleges responded by passing a sizeable amount of their expense burden on to students. Even though the recession is years behind us, most states have not increased their education funding to even prerecession levels. Adjusting for inflation, states still paid on average 10 percent less on education per student in 2017 than they did in 2007.
  • Southern whites tried multiple tactics to get Blacks to stay. They cut the wages of Black workers so they couldn’t afford transportation north. They refused to cash paychecks for Black workers if they had a suspicion that the money would be used to finance travel north. Lawmakers made the recruitment of Black workers to the North illegal and started jailing recruiters who showed up in Southern cities. They printed horror stories of Black Northern life in local papers. They refused to sell bus and train tickets to Black travelers.
  • In 2017, when researchers from Harvard Business School looked at the socioeconomic histories of various regions of the United States to determine which factors supported economic growth and innovation, they found a lot of interesting patterns. They found that places that were more economically and socially open to diversity were more conducive to innovation in business and technology. They also found that having once been a slaveholding state was a good predictor of stagnant economic growth, based on past growth patterns.
  • When Wallace first ran for governor of Alabama in 1958, he conducted a relatively progressive campaign. He was outspoken against the KKK and was even endorsed by the NAACP. And he got his ass handed to him in the primary by an openly racist candidate, John Malcolm Patterson. In defeat, Wallace learned that his path to electoral victory did not lie in peace and love. After the election, Wallace was quoted as saying to his friend Seymore Trammell, “I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”
  • The percentage of women workers increased because as men were losing jobs and income, more women needed to enter the workforce to help provide for their households. If a husband or father lost his job or was forced to take a large pay cut, then the additional income from a wife’s or daughter’s job might just help a family scrape by. (That said, the wages of women were not nearly enough to replace the incomes of men—especially when incomes were reduced by businesses that took advantage of a desperate job market to slash the wages of male workers.) Ironically, employment that was considered “women’s work” or “colored work” (primarily service and domestic work) was far less impacted by the Great Depression.
  • “The Negro was born in depression. It didn’t mean too much to him, the Great American Depression, as you call it. There was no such thing,” recounted Clifford Burke in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. “The best he could be is a janitor or a porter or shoeshine boy. It only became official when it hit the white man. If you can tell me the difference between the depression today and the Depression of 1932 for a Black man, I’d like to know it.”
  • possible ways to deal with women workers after the war, including those who wanted to keep working. Possible solutions include treating housework and child-rearing more like “a profession” and establishing training programs on household management. Another is to pay women not to work. The prospect of women staying in the workplace so long as men helped them with household chores in order to lighten their burden is briefly floated but immediately dismissed as too upsetting to the “traditional scheme of things.”
  • When Pao resigned she was replaced by Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman. He didn’t roll back the changes that Pao had implemented—the ones that apparently had caused so much outrage with Redditors—and yet, for some mysterious reason, the outrage ended. The protests stopped; the popular subreddits were taken out of their private settings.
  • “The very foundation of football in this country comes out of fears of ruling-class mediocrity and [fears of] the mediocrity of their own children.”
  • This manipulation is unsurprising when we remember that many NFL teams started as company teams as a way to pacify and control workers. Teams like the Decatur Staleys (which became the Chicago Bears) were developed to keep workers busy and happy, and to foster company loyalty during times of union upheaval.
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