Last week, 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said she wanted to explain “white privilege” to suburban white women. I would be happy to sit in on the lecture (assuming men are allowed) because, apparently, nobody is more privileged — nor more disliked for it — than old white men. Like me.
In fact, I recently did a quick Google search (yes, I know how to do that) for “old white men,” which turned up a horrifying list of angry screeds against people like me. There’s “No Country for Old White Men and Good Riddance,” a T-shirt that tells everyone you’ve “heard enough from old white men,” and The New York Times wondering whether “a white man be the face of the Democratic party in 2020?” — which, for the Times, is an improvement over hiring editorial board members who tweet about “how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
This barrage of vitriol speaks to the recent cultural milieu in which, at best, there is something suspect about the decisions, the motives, and even the very existence of old white men. At worst, there is a presumption that we are malevolent, parasitic oppressors of those who are not like us.
Well, speaking as an old, white man — I beg to differ.
I grew up in Chicago, studied hard at school (most of the time), and, at 13, started working odd jobs to earn my own spending money. I worked my way through college — I had a job literally digging ditches — rather than take from parents who had relatively little. Graduating in just three and a half years (because, on my own dime, I didn’t want to prolong the experience), I got a job as a traveling salesman. My territory was the entire Eastern United States and it was the best business training I could have had — better than a MBA. I would be out on the road for three to five weeks at a time, work from about 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., and then spend hours in the evening driving to the next town. Nobody told me how to do it or what to do. I met with customers, made sales, and showed results.
Once I started a family, I decided I couldn’t travel like that anymore — but the experience convinced me I wanted to start my own business. With a phone in my dad’s chicken store and $2,000 borrowed from my father-in-law, that’s precisely what I did. After 43 years of 60+-hour work weeks, my brothers (who had joined me in the business) and I sold our company to Staples in 1998. By then, Quill Corporation was doing over $630 million in volume nationwide and had over 1200 well-paid employees — many of whom had their own families and mortgages.
I lived the American dream by going from virtually nothing to a very successful position. And I didn’t just earn it for myself. Along the way, I paid thousands of other people to help me. In exchange, they earned a nice living. I remember a foreman in my warehouse who had been with us a long time retiring with over a million dollars in his profit sharing account.
Ours is not the only culture in the world that traditionally values the wisdom and life experience of its elders. Nor are we the only culture where young people strain against those traditions. But we do appear to be one of a growing few who demonize and smear people for being born white and male and then having the audacity to age — amassing along the way some combination of hard-earned money and experience.
While this smear campaign against people like me might help realize someone’s radical political agenda, it does so at a terrible cost for the country and the society it organizes. In addition to being unfair — a condition that Americans are notoriously good at sensing and, over time, rejecting — it’s self-defeating. All my life, I’ve believed in this country’s mission statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s words are and always have been aspirational. They are never fully realized. When unequal treatment hurts any American, it hurts us all. The answer to historical inequality is not for new winners and losers to be chosen, which is what the “I’ve heard enough from old white men” crowd wants. The answer is not to put me out to pasture.
The answer is for us all to acknowledge that we want to see the American vision realized for everyone and to work together to make that a reality. But in order to do that, we must acknowledge that none of us is standing on a higher moral plane than others just by accident of birth or political persuasion (liberal or conservative). And each and every one of us must do our part and take responsibility for our own lives in order to help make it happen.
Mr. Miller is the founder and former CEO of Quill Corp. Today, he is co-chair of Millbrook Properties, and the founder and Chairman of the Jack Miller Center.