If the racial views of most White Americans are, in fact, shaped by the context within which they live, then we need to understand that context.
Segregation now, segregation tomorrow . . .
The most basic point to understand is that a significant majority of White Americans have spent their whole lives in racially segregated settings. Home, work, school, church, and neighborhood, those of us who are White often are isolated from people who are racially, ethnically, and culturally different. That’s no accident, of course. Governments at every level, banks, businesses, real estate companies, churches, and virtually every White-run enterprise have worked hard for centuries for precisely this result. White Americans, therefore, experience more racial isolation than any other group in the U.S.
It’s safe to say that not that many White people have meaningful conversations about racial issues with their occasional acquaintances of color, meaning that nearly all White people talk about race almost exclusively with other White people. The result is an echo chamber in which White perspectives are repeated again and again, depriving many people of an opportunity to consider other views.
“I keep a lot of African American friends — some of my dearest friends — but when we hang out at the brew house, we don’t talk about these issues. A lot of residents are going, ‘Damn, I never realized my friends felt that way or had these experiences.’ ” —Ferguson, Missouri mayor James Knowles III, in the wake of the protests following Michael Brown’s death
Equal opportunity + unequal outcomes = something’s wrong with those people
Another very important component of the racial views of many White people is the belief that there is equal opportunity in this country for everyone, regardless of background, a conviction rooted deeply in the idea of the American Dream and in the family stories of many White Americans. Of course, many Americans do move up the ladder, at least a rung or two, and sometimes all the way to the top. Unfortunately, they are more the exception than the rule. In this country, even more than in many others, wealth begets wealth. Intergenerational mobility is lower than many Americans believe (and has been for some time), and the consequences of that immobility have grown as the gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased (Chetty et al., 2014).
Furthermore, as we see in the section on the Consequences of Stereotypes, people of color face continuing discrimination that makes it more difficult to get ahead in life, perpetuating inequality all the more.
In spite of the evidence, however, the White echo chamber asserts quite firmly that people of color, and poor people of all backgrounds, have just as much chance to make it as White people and those born to plenty. The fact that they still lag behind, therefore, must be their own fault. After all, from their perspective, every other explanation has been eliminated.
Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Divided by Faith, 2000) interviewed White evangelical Christians and found that they (like most other White Americans) do not believe that either history or discrimination can explain racialization (on-going racial inequality). Neither do they believe that people of color are genetically inferior to Whites. As a result, and almost by default, they conclude that contemporary inequality stems from the inferiority of Black culture and from the fact that Black people are lazier, on average, than White people. (Almost all the White interviewees in the study focused on Black people specifically, rather than on people of color more generally.)
Let’s be clear: this is racist, and it taps into cultural stereotypes that have been around for generations. But it is important to understand that most White people who hold these views do not believe that they are racist. For one thing, their image of a racist is a Klansman or a neo-Nazi. A racist is, by their definition, an outright bigot. Anything short of that is given a pass. Furthermore, most White people think that racism is believing in the genetic inferiority of a group of people.. They reject the idea of genetic inferiority, so by that logic as well, they can’t be racist.
Most important of all, from the perspective of many White people, they are merely drawing a logical conclusion from the facts.
- The playing field is level.
- But some people aren’t doing as well as others.
- Therefore, they must be to blame, either individually, collectively, or both.
Everything else flows from there. Do some people claim that discrimination still exists? They are “playing the race card.” Perhaps they are “professional agitators” who travel to places where everybody was getting along just fine before they started to rile things up. (Which is exactly what I heard about Dr. King when I was a child in the ’60s.)
As people think these things through, they are in no way doing a dispassionate analysis. There is an energy, an anger, about race among many (though by no means all) White Americans that stems, in part, from the frustration we all experience when we believe people refuse to face basic, obvious facts (such as The Black History Month Story). The interviews with White evangelicals in Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith are filled with this frustration. One example: “There are a lot of people just sitting back on their butts, saying because of circumstances in the past you owe me this and you owe me that. There’s a lot of resentment in the White community because of that . . .” (page 102).
Of course, this is intimately and directly connected to stereotypes of people of color from the time of European colonization. Are overtly racist beliefs less common than they were a generation or two ago? Yes, but not by as much as you probably think, and due, in large part, to the belief that people of color are getting pretty much what they deserve.
“Racism is a changing ideology with the constant and rational purpose of perpetuating and justifying a social system that is racialized.” —-Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith (2000)
Racism without Racists
Duke University Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva summarizes these perspectives by saying that we now have Racism without Racists (2003). There aren’t as many people who wear sheets and burn crosses as there used to be. But racism persists because people of color continue to have less access to power and resources (the vertical dimension of race) and because the attitudes of the majority continue to be shaped by their efforts to explain and justify that disparity.
Prof. Bonilla-Silva has identified four characteristics of the racial views of most White Americans:
- Abstract liberalism is using the language of the Civil Rights Movement to preserve the racial status quo. One example is using the concept of “equal opportunity” to argue against programs designed to make opportunity truly equal. “Reverse racism” is another, related, example–framing policies designed to counter persistent racism against people of color as racism against White people.
- Naturalization is a means of explaining racism as an inevitable consequence of human nature. Segregation isn’t pernicious, for example; it’s simply a result of people wanting to be with their own kind. Racialization is simply the way things are.
- Cultural racism is taking old stereotypes about the genetic inferiority of people of color and re-defining them in terms of their ostensible cultural inferiority, as we saw in the interviews from Divided by Faith.
- Minimization is down-playing racialization and its effects on people of color, asserting that neither historical nor contemporary discrimination affects anyone’s opportunities today.
We’re the victims now
This is why most White people believe that any attempt to reduce racialization is, by definition, an unfair attack on them. Look at this chart from Norton and Sommers (2011):
The two light-gray lines intersect in the mid-1990s, meaning that for twenty years now, White people, on average, have thought that anti-White bias is a bigger problem in this country than anti-Black bias. And that perception keeps growing.
There is a palpable sense of threat here. Wilkins and Kaiser (2014) argue, “For Whites who support the status hierarchy [i.e., the racial status quo], racial progress is an assault on their social standing that causes them to perceive greater amounts of racial bias against Whites.” They measured White people’s support for “status-legitimizing beliefs,” those arguments that support the idea that society is equally fair to everyone and that people pretty much get what they deserve. White people who support the status quo and believe that people of color have made progress also were likely to say that anti-White bias is a problem. Reading about successful African Americans (Barack Obama and Condoleeza Rice) further increased that sense of anti-White bias. Taking a moment to affirm themselves, by writing about a time they behaved in a way that was consistent with their values, reduced participants’ sense of anti-White bias, suggesting that focusing on racial progress can lead some White people to feel threatened. Alleviate the sense of threat with another form of self-affirmation, and the sense of anti-White bias fades as well.
Even if you buy into the idea that life is a zero-sum game–that anyone else’s progress comes at my expense–there is no logical reason to be more concerned about the progress of people of color than the progress of other White people. If I don’t get the job, or the acceptance into the elite university, does the race of the person who did really matter? Logically, no, it doesn’t. But psychologically, well, yes, it very well could.
So where does this sense of threat come from?
In an era of globalization and rising inequality, especially when we are still recovering from the Great Recession, it’s easy to see how there would be a high baseline level of anxiety to begin with. More specifically, as we have heard millions of Americans proclaim that it’s time to “take our country back,” many White Americans feel as though the country is changing demographically in ways that will leave them sidelined.
Robert Outten and his colleagues (2012) found that simply asking White people (American or Canadian) to read the projections of demographic change over the next 40 years left them feeling more angry toward and fearful of ethnic minority groups. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson (2014) found, furthermore, that asking White people to read about upcoming demographic changes led many of them to take much more conservative stances on political issues. That political shift was mediated, in part, by concerns that White people will lose out as people of color increase in number. This could play into the increasing political polarization of the country. Consider Texas, for example, that has gotten increasingly conservative at precisely the time it has become more ethnically diverse. White, non-Hispanic, people now constitute just over 40% of the state, but those 40% vote together now in a way they never did before.
(The connection with political conservatism, of course, is not race per se. It runs through a conservative sense that society is structured generally as it was meant to be, and that attempts to change the status quo generally are misguided, futile, and likely to make things worse, not better.)
The sense of threat leads, often, to anger. Not everyone is as angry as this woman, who is protesting a bus full of children who crossed into the U.S. from Central America in 2014. There are many reasons people might oppose immigration, especially by those who come without papers. It’s the anger that is so telling, I think, that sense of threat, the fierce anxiety that a country she loves is slipping away and there is nothing she can do about it.
The Bottom Line: Segregation from people of other backgrounds, the denial of racism past and present, on-going stereotypes of people of color, and rapidly-changing national demographics leave many White Americans feeling confused, angry, and threatened by the role of race in the U.S. today.