When whites say, "What about me?"

New research shows a big jump in white Americans saying they face racism. What are we missing here?


Joan Walsh
May 26, 2011 5:01PM (UTC)

Did you know whites believe they face more racism than African-Americans do? That's what I've been reading in the news lately. Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a short piece about an intriguing study by researchers at Tufts and Harvard University, under the headline, "White Americans See Anti-White Bias on the Rise." Since then the New York Times weighed in with a fascinating "Room for Debate" discussion titled "Is Anti-White Bias a Problem?" TheRoot likewise posed the findings as a question, albeit more pointed: "White People Face the Worst Racism?"  Wednesday Gothamist declared flatly: "Regarding Racism, Whites Think They Are the New Blacks."

What's going on here? Black unemployment is double the white rate, with black poverty on the rise and the mortgage crisis hitting African-Americans hardest of all; there's proof that lenders gave blacks higher-interest and subprime mortgages even when they had the same income and credit rating as whites. The drug war hits black people disproportionately. So how in God's name can white people say they face worse racism? And who are these white people, anyway?

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Well, they're 209 white people, to be precise, chosen to reflect census data in terms of age, education and gender, according to Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, co-author (with Tufts' Samuel Sommers) of the study titled "Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing."

Even if you think it's plausible that whites are experiencing more anti-white bias in this rapidly diversifying country -- and I do, more on that later -- the results are stunning. Not only do the white respondents believe anti-white racism has risen enormously: On a scale of 1 to 10, whites gave anti-white racism a 4.7 over the last decade, up from 1.7 in the 1950s. They also seem to think it's a bigger problem than anti-black racism, which they gave a 9.1 in the '50s but only a 3.6 in the '00s. (Blacks thought anti-white bias had risen slightly, from 1.4 to 1.8.)

Norton points out that his study couldn't break down respondents by region, the rural-urban divide, by income or by politics, so it's possible an over- or under-representation of a particular region, class or partisan sample might skew the results a little. "It's clearly not perfect, but it's as good as we could do," Norton says, noting that differences in education and age didn't change the results. Which didn't hugely surprise him, Norton said, given the prominence of big affirmative action controversies, like the New Haven firefighter suit or the Seattle school desegregation conflict, in which whites have claimed disadvantage. "So it isn't as though it never happens," Norton says. But where those controversies make big headlines, "we don't look at disparities in child nutrition, or lead poisoning, or lots of other indicators" showing how African-Americans are still disadvantaged.

I wasn't surprised to learn whites think anti-white bias is on the rise, but that they think it's a bigger problem than anti-black racism is shocking, and alarming. Is it possible that some whites might experience more anti-white "racism" now than they did 30 years ago? Well, not if you're trapped in the boundaries of discourse mostly defined in academia, where people of all races can be bigots or prejudiced, but they can only be "racist" if they are a member of the socially, politically and economically dominant group.  But in our kaleidoscopic multiracial society, "racism" is a term that, like it or not, has come to be used by every group, to cover slights ranging from a peer in one group not liking your group, someone consistently disrespecting your group, to actual discrimination in education and employment. The idea that whites can't face racism seems silly: In the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have leaders of every race, whites disproportionately hold political and economic power, although political power is more diffused. But your chances of having a non-white teacher, boss, co-worker, firefighter, beat cop, prosecutor or judge are pretty high. Grievances can be misunderstood as racial; they may in fact be racial.

And in a society where whites will inevitably become a minority at some point in the next 40 years -- among California schoolchildren, they already are -- will those complaints matter? Should they? It's hard to know exactly how to analyze Norton's data, because it's mute on what respondents consider anti-white bias. Therefore it's hard to know what, if anything, to do. In its "Room for Debate" feature on the whites and racism study, the New York Times sought out Victoria Plaut of the University of California-Berkeley Law School,  whose research on whites' attitudes toward diversity are fascinating. Given the lack of information about the experiences and social class of the people in Norton's study, it's hard to know whether Plaut's work has direct relevance, but it's worth discussing nonetheless.

Plaut's research "'What About Me?' Perceptions of Exclusion and Whites' Reactions to Multiculturalism," with co-authors Flannery G. Garnett and Laura E. Buffardi, looked at five different studies designed to measure white and non-white attitudes toward multiculturalism and diversity programs. Plaut and her co-authors found, maybe not surprisingly, that whites tended to feel excluded by multiculturalism, where people of color felt included. But this reaction could be lessened, or intensified, by a couple of variables. In one of the five studies, one group read a description of multiculturalism and diversity activities that made clear that the experiences of white Americans were part of the mix; a control group read an identical description, with no mention of white Americans. The whites who were told diversity approaches included the experience of whites felt more "included" than those who were not. In another study, researchers looked at subjects' "need to belong" -- it has an acronym, NTB, who knew? -- and found that whites with a strong need to belong felt particularly excluded by activities and approaches around multiculturalism and diversity.

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In an experiment known as "Me/Not Me," respondents were asked to quickly rate whether a series of terms having to do with race, ethnicity and diversity had anything to do with them personally. It found that the white students related more favorably to the terms associated with "colorblindness" -- equality, unity, sameness, similarity, color blind, and color blindness – than to words associated with "multiculturalism": diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism.

What does this tell us? The study authors (as do I) take for granted that it matters -- it would be a good thing -- if whites embrace diversity and multicultural initiatives, whether in schools, workplaces and community groups, and they therefore suggest that people designing such programs consider that "whites’ reactions to multiculturalism … are rooted in the basic social psychological need for inclusion and belonging." Stressing that multiculturalism encompasses the wide variety of white ethnic and class experiences might help. Emphasizing words with positive resonance like "equality" and "unity" might too.

That makes sense to me. As long as I've been writing about the changing demography of California, I've wondered about rhetoric that seems to leave whites out of the future. I've never been a huge fan of the "people of color" umbrella when wielded politically. It can be useful descriptively; it can also provide (false) confidence that "minority" issues can gain "majority" support without whites, as long as African-American lawyers, Cuban teachers, Laotian refugees, Caribbean entrepreneurs, Salvadoran doctors, fourth-generation Chinese real estate moguls, refugees from Mexican drug wars, and third-generation welfare recipients of any non-white race can all stick together in a grand coalition. Good luck with that.

Last week I sent around via Twitter a fascinating map produced by the group PolicyLink (disclosure, I'm on the board), "America's Tomorrow," which vividly shows the shifting demographic landscape between 1990 and 2040. (I've embedded it below.) The map shows how America is changing, and it's a mind-blowing graphic tool. But it's silent about what it all means. I think it means that every generation or two, Americans have to reinvent America, and we've never come up with an idea that's truly racially inclusive -- and we're about to have to. But that vision has to include white people -- and not only as the scared seniors Ross Douthat warns won't be able to trust brown kids, when it's their turn to support them via Social Security and Medicare. I certainly don't think the map should be used as a way to scare white folks into investing in brown kids -- or else.

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In all of these discussions, I find myself thinking we need more empathy. On that very point, Michael Norton began his article with a startling quote from Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, from the hearings on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009, which were racially divisive in a way they really didn't need to be. During discussions on judicial "empathy," Sessions opined that "Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another." Really? What a sad, cynical worldview. It's as though empathy is finite, like money in your bank account or gas in your tank. There's also the assumption that if non-white people get more power and influence, they’ll wield it at the expense of white people, the way (many) white people did when the roles were reversed.

I was raised to believe empathy was what made us human, and that it's reciprocal: The capacity to stand in another's shoes and feel for them is one of our great advantages. So I think we've got to try to understand why whites seem to believe they're facing more bias than African-Americans, even if we're inclined to roll our eyes and either hope it's a research problem (which I did) or hold on until what whites believe doesn't matter so much anymore. I trust the next far-more-multiracial generation to feel for older and younger people, whatever their race. I believe that makes us not only human, but American -- and I think I have a lot of company in that belief.

Here's the "America's Tomorrow" map. Tell me what you think.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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