COMMENTARY

White men as victims: America's most dangerous fantasy

The notion that white men are a persecuted minority isn't just ludicrous — it paves the way for racist violence

By Chauncey DeVega

Published February 22, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of the most popular lies being circulated by the Republican Party and the larger white right is that white men are somehow oppressed in America. To say that such a claim is absurd would be an understatement. To be white is to have access to unearned advantages in almost every arena of American society and throughout the world. And to be male is also to have access to resources and life opportunities that in general are de facto still denied to women and girls.

By almost all indicators, men as a group dominate and control America's networks of power, influence, wealth and other resources.

RELATED: Joe Walsh on Trump's looming "race war" — and why his followers love it

Of course many individual men who happen to be white experience life hardships and other disadvantages. Moreover, the group advantages enjoyed by men overall do not trickle down equally to all men on either side of the color line. Likewise, there are individual Black and brown people, and individual women, who have tremendous power, resources and wealth. But in the aggregate, on a societal scale, white men are not being disadvantaged because of their race or gender.

But the absurdity of this claim should not be surprising. Race itself is perhaps the greatest absurdity in modern history; it is a social construct, not a genetic or biological fact. It was invented to legitimize global white supremacy and imperialism.


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As Peter Prontzos at Scientific American summarizes: 

In 2014, more than 130 leading population geneticists condemned the idea that genetic differences account for the economic, political, social and behavioral diversity around the world. In fact, said a 2018 article in Scientific American, there is a "broad scientific consensus that when it comes to genes there is just as much diversity within racial and ethnic groups as there is across them." And the Human Genome Project has confirmed that the genomes found around the globe are 99.9 percent identical in every person. Hence, the very idea of different "races" is nonsense.

A second problem, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff has shown, is that simply using the word "race," even when criticizing racism, actually reinforces the false belief that human beings belong to fundamentally different groups. That's because the more a word is used, the more that certain brain circuits are activated and the stronger that metaphor becomes.

Nonetheless the "true lie" of race remains one of the most powerful forces in American and global society.

A binary understanding of gender — which itself is also a social construct — is only slightly less absurd than the race concept. When race and gender are combined with questions of whiteness, masculinity and power, matters only become more complicated, more confusing and therefore more politically and socially combustible.

Ultimately, white male victimology has historically proven itself to pose an extreme threat to pluralistic democracy. When the group with the most power believes in delusions and fantasies about its oppression, violence is the likely result. This is justified through claims of self-defense against an imaginary threat.

In a recent featured essay at the Washington Post, Cleve Wootson Jr. waded into the tumultuous debate about white male victimology and "oppression" in the Age of Trump and beyond. He begins with:

Holding court at a political rally in Texas last week, former president Donald Trump implied that he — a wealthy White man who was elected to an office almost exclusively held by White men — was a victim of racism.

His claim referenced what he said were three "radical vicious, racist prosecutors" — one in Georgia, one in New York, one in Washington, and all of them Black — who are investigating his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and examining his business organization's finances. But his comments made him the latest in a line of conservatives claiming, loudly and frequently, that White men are victims of racism.

After years of being branded a racist for his inflammatory comments and actions, Trump and some of his allies are attempting to turn that label back on their critics. In the process, they have wielded their own definition of racism, one that disregards the country's history of racial exclusion that gives White people a monopoly on power and wealth. To make America more equitable, they argue, everyone must be treated equally and, therefore, White men must not in any way be disadvantaged.

Wootson locates this narrative of victimology within the larger context of Joe Biden's promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court:

The decision to consider only Black women was deemed racist by many conservatives. For some, anything but a race-blind selection would reek of bias, and Biden's parameters have been characterized as a political ploy to mollify a key constituency. Others have noted that narrowing the choices to Black women also excludes other historically disadvantaged groups, such as Hispanic women or women of Asian descent.

Wootson also triangulates these white male victimology narratives relative to the extreme partisan polarization of our era, in which a large majority of Republicans believe that "little or nothing needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans," according to a Pew Research study conducted last year, while a similarly large majority of Democrats believe "a lot more needs to be done to achieve racial equity." 

For some White voters, experts say, efforts to give certain groups added help can be seen as unnecessarily onerous and even discriminatory. Such views are often deeply held and affect how people — and voting blocs — feel about any number of issues, such as whether children study racial equity in school, who should receive food stamps, or whether an implicit bias seminar at work is a waste of time.

To gain more context and insight into how the Republican Party and the larger white right are deploying the fantastical narrative of white men as an oppressed and persecuted group, I asked several experts on race, power and society for their thoughts on white male backlash, its origins and implications.

Jessie Daniels is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and a Professor of Sociology at Hunter College. She is the author of several books including "White Lies" and "Cyber Racism." Her new book is "Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It."

There's a long history of white men seeing themselves as the chief victims of racial oppression. This includes the end of slavery. White men who were also enslavers saw themselves as the true victims of the abolition of their way of making a living, so they went to their government and asked, even demanded, compensation for their "loss" in freeing the people who worked for them for no money. In Britain, this was enacted through the Slave Compensation Act 1837 and continued compensating slave-owning white families through 2015.  In the U.S., each slave-owning white man received $300 for each person they owned who was freed because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when at the same time formerly enslaved people were promised 40 acres and a mule, a promise that was mostly unfulfilled

Fast forward to the era of "affirmative action" in the early 1970s, and even with this very limited federal government program, white men felt attacked.

My research into the far right led me to the printed publications of groups on the right — from the KKK to David Duke's NAAWP — from around 1970 through the early 1990s. Throughout the publications that I examined, I found white men deeply invested in the sort of twin imagery of themselves as "warriors" and also as "victims" of racial oppression. 

In the current era, examples proliferate of white men who see themselves as victims, chief among them former President Trump, who in his opening campaign speech referenced the "rapists" and "drug dealers" coming from Mexico, an old racist trope from the white supremacist playbook. It's also deadly. White men as "victims" easily slides into a white guy with a gun. And there's often a white woman standing by her man on the front porch of their midwestern palazzo, even with the guns. 

The "victim" rhetoric from white men coincides with the white-led backlash against any kind of Black progress. A year after the supposed "reckoning" of the summer of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd (and "Central Park Karen"), it's not surprising to me that we are experiencing a season of whitelash with white men at the front, proclaiming their innocence for the destruction they've caused even as they profess their victimhood. 

RELATED: Donald Trump's fantasies of racial violence reflect an all-too-real history

Wajahat Ali is the author of the new book "Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American." He is a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. His essays and other writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic.

White male grievance is the lifeblood of white supremacy, an endless supply of faux victimhood to justify all sorts of irrational brutality and inequity to maintain power for them and only them. Trump has just tapped into this white rage to fuel the right wing movement; this is nothing new. Just go back and see the movie "Birth of a Nation" from 1915 — it's all there. Black emancipation, even barely at that, was an affront to white power, rule and dominion. As a result? They were victims who then donned the hoods of the KKK to reclaim their honor. Victims or heroes, never the villains.

Jean Guerrero is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the recent book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda." Her essays and other writing have been featured at Vanity Fair, Politico, the Nation, Wired, the New York Times and The Washington Post.

White victimology politics were once the purview of neo-Nazis and the KKK, but they've become the engine of the Republican Party. Back in the '70s, David Duke was largely reviled and rejected by Americans for his white victimology politics. He claimed the "white man" was the real "second-class citizen" in America today.

But this delusion that white men are the real victims is now mainstream gospel among Republicans. That's thanks to decades of conservative politicians and talk show hosts cashing in on white racial anxieties about demographic change by injecting white supremacy or "white supremacy lite" into the GOP bloodstream.

Many of those key players (i.e., Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Stephen Miller) have roots in California, where non-Hispanic white people became a demographic minority in the '90s.

As I wrote in "Hatemonger," that's when we saw the rise of a racially furious, radicalized brand of conservatism that eventually morphed into Trumpism. It's no surprise that Trump is now repeatedly framing white men as victims of racial discrimination, given that his trusted ally Miller has for months been busy thwarting efforts to help marginalized communities by casting those efforts as racist against white people. White victimology politics are rooted in the fallacy of civilization as a zero-sum game. Their logical conclusion is race war.

Ashley Jardina in an assistant professor of Political Science at Duke University. She is the author of "White Identity Politics."

Central to Trump's political strategy was an effort to stoke racial grievances among white Americans.

Feelings of racial victimization among white Republicans grew over Trump's presidency. According to data from the American National Election Study, in 2016, 30% of white men identifying with the Republican Party reported that whites experience a moderate to a great amount of discrimination in the U.S. By 2020, that number had increased to 40%. But white Republican women also share this sense of racial victimhood. In 2020, nearly 43% of white Republican women surveyed said that white Americans experience notable amounts of racial discrimination.

RELATED: Mitch McConnell's moment of truth: For many whites, Black people aren't real "Americans"

Joe R. Feagin is a sociologist and the Ella C. McFadden Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University. He is the author of many books including "The White Racial Frame," "White Party, White Government: Race, Class, and U.S. Politics," "Racist America" and "Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage."

Prominent white men, including major white scholars, created and circulated the terms "reverse racism" and "affirmative discrimination" starting back in the late 1960s and 1970s solely to counter the new civil rights laws and presidential affirmative action orders (from Lyndon Johnson) pressuring whites in major organizations to redress centuries of extreme racial oppression and of white unjust enrichments from that oppression, enrichments passed along many generations of white families to the present day.

In the late 1960s and 1970s this federal pressure sought to redress the severe oppressive legacies of Jim Crow segregation.  For decades this reverse racism/white victimology notion has been a standard white deflection tactic to change the necessary antiracist discussions and actions away from those about seriously remedying those past and present unjust white enrichments from 400-plus years of white racist oppression, exploitation and dominance. It is basically an attack on Black America and Black efforts for change.

Especially relevant to this current white victimology is the reality that this broad white racial framing has always centered a very positive orientation to whites as highly virtuous and a negative orientation to racial "others" viewed as unvirtuous.

These narratives aggressively accentuate notions of white superiority, white civilization and institutions, white virtue and white moral goodness. That is what all these white politicians are doing with their phony and empirically undocumented claims that they are victims of racial discrimination. Their white virtuousness is being legitimately challenged, and their unvirtuousness in creating and maintaining racist institutions is being foregrounded.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Conservatives Donald Trump Racism Republicans Social Science White Supremacy