Why whites don't see racism: Reagan Democrats are Stephen Colbert Democrats now

With different frames of reference, the perception gap on racial issues is widening -- and affects policy choices

Published May 3, 2014 2:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mike Blake)
(Reuters/Mike Blake)

Excerpted from "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America" 

There is a perception gap in the electorate between blacks and non-blacks about affirmative action in college admissions and between whites and non-whites about issues of racial inequality generally. For example, a CNN survey conducted in 2009 found that 55 percent of blacks thought discrimination was a very serious problem, while only 17 percent of whites felt that way. Similarly, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey on race, 80 percent of blacks felt that equality has not been achieved and 43 percent of blacks thought there was still “a lot of discrimination,” while only 13 percent of whites believed that there was much anti-black bias.  The same survey also found that 54 percent of whites believed the country had made the necessary changes to give African Americans rights equal to whites, while only 13 percent of blacks believed this. Hispanic survey participants were divided on this question, with 42 percent saying they agreed the country had made the necessary changes to give blacks equal  rights and 47 percent concluding that more changes were necessary.

One psychology study suggests that whites and people of color have different perceptions about the extent of racial equality because they have different frames of reference. Arguably, whites have higher assessments of racial progress because they tend to compare the present to our Jim Crow past. People of color tend to compare the present to a future ideal of full equality.  In fact, whites are more apt to perceive  discrimination against themselves than against racial minorities. A recent study found that all Americans think significant progress has been made against anti-black bias. But whites perceived that progress as coming at their expense, and they viewed anti-white bias as a bigger social problem than anti-black bias.

Working-class whites are in a serious funk. They are more pessimistic about their future prospects than are blacks and Latinos, even as the latter groups experience higher rates of unemployment.  They see opportunities for people like themselves contracting, while blacks and Latinos “feel there are a set of long-term opportunities that are opening to them that were previously closed on the basis of race or ethnicity.”

Data about racial disparities mask the experiences of working-class whites. Median wealth of whites is twenty times that of blacks and eighteen times that of Latinos, a gap that doubled as a result of the collapse of the housing market. But working-class whites fall far below any median of white wealth. For many, the very idea of “wealth” being associated with their circumstances is laughable. The most recently reported median annual income for whites over age twenty-five without a college degree is $28,644, compared to $23,582 for blacks and $22,734 for Latinos who also only completed high school.  This reflects a greater than 20 percent income disparity, but the white person trying to live on such wages is much closer in circumstances to working-class blacks and Latinos than they are to whites higher up the income scale. When civil rights advocates discuss racial inequality or when progressive academics speak of “white privilege,” what they are really comparing is the experiences of ordinary people of color to that of affluent whites.

Working-class whites are rarely disaggregated in these debates. They don’t feel privileged, and they are not privileged in the globalized economy. Racial disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed significantly since 1970, and economic insecurity now threatens to engulf more than three-quarters of white adults by the time they turn sixty. This may have something to do with why many whites shut down or become irritated by a classic civil rights discourse that almost always focuses on racial/ethnic disparities as a measure of inequality.

Meanwhile, for many people of color, racial disparities are lived. If they are not seriously struggling, they are related to or know someone who is and oft en are called upon to give financial assistance to family. Yet whites tend to blame blacks for their lack of advancement rather than structural barriers or inequalities. Nearly half of blacks seem to agree with them, blaming themselves rather than discrimination for “why many black people can’t get ahead these days.”

White folks in the age of Obama, in particular, are tired of hearing black complaints. His election seems to have exacerbated the perception gap about racial inequality. Even non-blacks who voted for Obama became less supportive of policies designed to reduce racial disparities after his election. A team of researchers discovered this ironic effect by surveying seventy-four undergraduates at the University of Washington immediately before and after the 2008 election. After Obama’s election, “participants concluded that racism was less of a problem and that anyone can achieve success through effort and perseverance.” Hence they expressed less support for policies like affirmative action, school desegregation, and other diversity policies.

Levels of racial resentment toward blacks have also risen since Obama became president. In a 2012 Associated Press poll, 51 percent of respondents expressed explicit anti-black attitudes, compared to 48 percent in a similar 2008 poll. Those expressing such anti-black views were more likely to be Republicans (64 percent compared to 55 percent of Democrats). The academics that conducted the poll did not measure anti-black attitudes as equivalent to racism. An online comment to an article in the New York Times illuminates the difference:

I’m a child of the rural South. But you know what? Actual racism is a lot less common there—we have a ways to go but there is real progress on that front. The more serious problem is white resentment. A lot of white people honestly think they have been significantly deprived of various things because of minorities. And it’s hard to overstate how deeply these feelings run. It’s not so much animosity toward people who are different— it’s the animosity of the aggrieved. They feel like they are victims.

Progressives are often perplexed at why blue-collar guys blame their economic frustrations on people of color and not Wall Street or corporate titans. This is a learned response. In the South, especially, ever since Reconstruction threatened to create a biracial democracy responsive to the working classes, economic elites have stoked racial tensions in order to avoid redistributive policies.

Our black president is the latest, most convenient wedge issue. Although working-class and poor people of all colors suffer greatly from this divisive politics, anti-government rhetoric has reached a frenzied screech in the Age of Obama. The angry black man has been replaced with the angry white one. Post-Obama, Latinos and blacks express optimism about their future chances while certain whites are deeply pessimistic and resentful. Old-fashioned racism has been supplanted by a much more subtle sentiment of racial resentment about not getting ahead. In the past, the primary emotion associated with negative racial attitudes was disgust accompanied by ideas about biological inferiority. Now anger is the primary emotional trigger for negative racial attitudes among whites who harbor them. Two political scientists find that “anger is uniquely powerful at boosting opposition to racially redistributive policies among white racial conservatives.” Nonracial ideologies and preferences for small government are not activated by these emotions.

These negative racial sentiments in turn influence policy stances. Racial resentment often correlates with opposition to any policies perceived as redistributive. For example, another team of political scientists found that whites who registered above average in racial resentment were three times more likely than others to choose the least extensive version of health care reform presented to them in a survey. Those who registered low levels of racial resentment were twice as likely to support a significant expansion of health care coverage. They attribute this difference to differing gut-level worldviews. Partisan attachments, they argue, are increasingly shaped by visceral perspectives, such that even ostensibly nonracial issues are now also about race. Not surprisingly, those who harbor racial resentments are more likely to support voter identification laws and other provisions that make it more difficult to vote. About thirty states have passed or are considering laws restricting access to voting, the vast majority of which have Republican governors or GOP-controlled legislatures.

This is the latest iteration of the Republican Southern strategy, although changing demographics have rendered it a losing approach to presidential elections. With a GOP that has become utterly dependent on white votes, especially in racially gerrymandered districts, it is nearly impossible for some candidates and talk show hosts to resist the ease of tapping into a well of anger and resentment for votes and ratings. No candidate or commentator has to mention race. They need only stoke anger about government spending “your money,” and voters who harbor racial resentments will make the connection in their minds, for “those people.”

And so in the age of Obama, where “the primary negative emotion underpinning white attitudes towards blacks—anger—is so common in everyday life,”  even debates about infrastructure have become hyperpartisan. Race cleavages built into the architecture of our politics stymie progress on myriad fronts. For some whites, limited government values allow them to express race-based objections to redistributive policies without appearing racist. This does not mean that all whites who oppose big government are racist or lacking in nonracial, small-government principles. Researchers are finding that where negative racial attitudes exist, they heighten partisan tendencies.

Facts no longer matter in these debates. Emotions, culture, and world views do. According to other social science research, people tend to reject facts that do not fit with their cognitive frames of reference. On matters of race, many if not most whites have a cognitive frame of reference that suggests to them that no interventions on behalf of racial minorities are necessary. The idea of prejudice is threatening to most whites’ self-identity as nonracist. Thus they can protect their self-identity by minimizing perceived racism. This may explain why blacks and whites can have dramatically different perceptions about whether a particular event, say George Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin, was motivated by racism. That perception gap was mirrored in reactions to the trial verdict: in a Pew poll, 86 percent of black Americans expressed “dissatisfaction” with the verdict, compared to only 30 percent of whites, and in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 9 percent of blacks “approved” of the acquittal, compared to 51 percent of whites.

Our politics of divided worldviews might be manageable if politicians had to compete for the votes of people with diverse visceral perspectives. But racial gerrymandering and our tendency to live among people like ourselves inhibit that possibility. The racial cleavage that typifies our national politics is most pronounced in the South. Political scientists who have carefully examined Southern politics conclude that race is the dominant issue. Blacks and whites appear to hew to a racial interest as opposed to an economic one. Large majorities of Southern blacks, regardless of income, identify themselves as core Democrats, while core Republicans outnumber core Democrats in every income category among Southern whites.

There is a tight racial architecture to politics in the South that has been exacerbated by racial gerrymandering. Republicans dominate in districts that are 0–14 percent black; they are competitive in the districts that are 15–29 percent black; and they fail in districts with black populations above 30 percent. This pronounced racial structure dramatically shapes how and whether a politician can assemble a winning coalition. White Republicans espouse a robust conservatism designed to attract substantial white majorities, while black Democrats can be equally robust liberals.  The racial architecture of Southern politics does not leave any room for moderation, and it does not encourage cross-racial competition or votes or a discourse of racial empathy. Latino voters are beginning to complicate this dynamic. For them, unlike with non-Hispanic black and white voters, economic status roughly predicts partisan loyalties.

Of course, the effects of racial gerrymandering are not limited to the South. Nationally, incumbents from both parties have excelled at propagating themselves such that only a few dozen congressional seats are competitive in each election cycle. After the 2010 elections, however, Republicans in control of state legislatures elevated racial gerrymandering to a new level of precision, purging Democrats and people of color to create safe Republican districts that are much whiter than the country as a whole. As a result, the average Republican House district rose to 75 percent white—similar to America in the 1970s—while the white population in the average Democratic district declined to 51 percent—akin to what America will look like in the 2030s.

Add to this racial gerrymandering the virtual gerrymandering caused by the echo chamber of social media, cable news, and talk radio, and polarization has reached toxic levels. A politician with 150,000 Twitter followers is the emperor of his parallel universe and feels no compunction about trying to impose his will on a national polity that doesn’t agree with him. As the nation witnessed during the government shutdown and debt ceiling crises in the fall of 2013, incumbents running in safe, racially and ideologically homogeneous districts have no incentive to moderate.

Beyond the effects of gerrymandering, the ideological and cultural sorting of America into separate places and separate states has greatly diminished the possibilities for robust democracy or for simply relating to the cultural “other.” As I write this chapter, one political party controls the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature in more than two-thirds of the states—the highest number in six decades. The GOP enjoys unified control in twenty-four states, nearly twice the number controlled by Democrats. Republicans control all of the legislatures in the states of the former Confederacy. Gerrymandered districts may have helped to elect large numbers of black state legislators in the South, but less than 5 percent of them serve in the majority party that dominates the region. And the GOP itself is hemmed in by the racial resentments of angry white voters that animate Tea Party activism and Republican primaries. With Congress held hostage by gerrymandered extremists, politics is broken in Washington, D.C.

Reforming affirmative action to begin racial reconciliation

Race-based affirmative action is but one of several touchstones in the code-worded discourse that helped create this divided state of affairs. Our nation lives with political gridlock borne of racial cleavage. The ascendance of political conservatism in the late twentieth century—an ideology of limited government, individual responsibility, and traditional values—coincided with the ascent of an ideology of color-blindness, and the one fueled the other. As Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild has argued, opponents of affirmative action gained cultural and political traction in part because their message fit with our most cherished values: the promised dream that in America anyone can prosper, regardless of race, sex, or other background, through sheer ambition and hard work. This ideology of individualism, in turn, animates the anti-government attitudes of Tea Party purists and consequent Republican obstructionism in Congress.

In light of this backlash, those who continue to champion race-based affirmative action must consider whether its benefits are worth the costs of continued racial divide. Empirical studies of the impact of affirmative action show that the policy did help to create the black middle class. But, according to Hochschild’s summary of the empirical literature, affirmative action was not nearly as influential as other, less controversial strategies like antidiscrimination enforcement, raising educational achievement of students of color, and reducing barriers to voting and holding office. While affirmative action had critical influence in raising minority presence at selective colleges in the 1980s, at the non-elite schools that 80 percent of college students attended, it seemed to play little to no role in admissions.

The relevant debate is not whether we should have had affirmative action in the first place. That question is moot. Given the inevitable demise of race-based affirmative action, the relevant question is, what is its logical replacement? Political constraints borne of a perception gap between whites and non-whites about the need for government interventions to redress racial inequality are likely to harden with rising demographic diversity. Institutions necessarily are changing to accommodate both emerging racial complexity and globalization. Latino enrollment in US colleges grew by a whopping 24 percent between 2009 and 2010, an increase of 349,000 students. In the same one-year period, enrollment by blacks and Asians also grew, while non-Hispanic white enrollment fell by 320,000.

This new America is threatening to many whites. Ironically, if you define merit solely in terms of test scores and grade point averages, many whites will fail in head-to-head competition with global aspirants for whom the Ivy League are safety schools. World strivers from Mali to Malaysia who don’t mind spending six, eight, or more hours a day studying compete with American applicants and, in the eyes of admissions officers, may even be viewed as more deserving.

Some increases in diversity will result naturally from demographic change. With the browning of America and the pressures of globalization, all institutions face a diversity imperative in order to maintain relevance and market share. White anxiety will continue to rise as more and more whites experience a loss of majority status. D. A. King, a Georgia activist against immigration reform, recently said explicitly what many whites may feel: “I was taught that we have an American culture to which immigrants will assimilate,” he said. “And I am incredibly resentful that’s not what’s happening anymore.”  Between the lines, he seems to be equating “American” culture with whiteness, and this dislocation of his tribe as the dominant political and cultural force in the United States is what most rankles.

In less than three decades, majority-white America is going to be replaced by multi-racial, multi-ethnic America. This transition is already creating social conflict—a conflict of values, culture, and political philosophy. Some voters, including many white ones, embrace diversity as a positive value and want the communities they live in, the employers they work for, and the governments they vote for to reflect their own openness and tolerance. They are averse to policies that ostracize particular groups, be they LGBT people, undocumented immigrants, or racial minorities. On the other hand, in a flat world where globalization and technological change are causing a great deal of economic pain, growing racial complexity threatens others. The philosophy of a small, color-blind government that takes no cognizance of racial and ethnic difference and touts “traditional” values resonates with voters who feel dislocated or disoriented by America’s racial and economic transitions.

These emotions and negative attitudes are not going away, and can’t be willed away. Voters tend to believe what they have been told, and if a political party builds a politics based upon racial loyalty over decades, it can take just as long to undo the damage. Gunnar Myrdal’s articulation of our American dilemma continues, but racial resentment supplants racial prejudice as the cause of our failure to realize our ideals. As two researchers who identified the potency of anger in current politics put it: “We think solving the problem Myrdal laid out over seven decades ago remains a challenge in contemporary America because it will involve breaking the powerful linkage between anger and ideas about race.” If whites are to engage with diversity rather than resent it, the rules of competition must be perceived as fair to them and everyone else.

Excerpted from "Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America" by Sheryll Cashin. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

By Sheryll Cashin

MORE FROM Sheryll Cashin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Affirmative Action Books Editor's Picks Race Ronald Reagan Stephen Colbert