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Exactly how much anti-whiteness is there?
We hired YouGov to ask 1,125 US adults whether they agreed with five statements designed to measure their anti-whiteness...
Written by Prof Eric Silver and Prof John Iceland.
The way we talk about racism has changed. Over the past decade or so, words like “bigot” and “extremist” have been overshadowed by words like “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” and “white fragility.” The new words portray a new kind of racist. Instead of wearing a hood and spewing hate speech, the “new racist” is an ordinary white person whose socialization into “whiteness” causes them to undermine people of color, whether they know it or not.
It’s not hard to see why well-meaning people might be drawn to this image of the new racist. Racial disparities persist. More than a century after Emancipation and 50 years after Civil Rights, blacks continue to lag behind whites in virtually all areas of success. To attribute these disparities to anything other than racism might seem like blaming the victim. Condemning the “new racist” avoids this problem.
Not everyone, however, agrees. Parents protest at school board meetings. State universities quietly soften their antiracism agendas. Individuals take defiant stands, sometimes at great cost to themselves, to combat what they perceive as the spread of anti-whiteness. And then, of course, there’s Florida, where “woke goes to die.”
These actions are motivated in part by concern over the antiracism movement’s use of morally charged language that depicts contemporary whites as racists and blames them for past and present racial injustices. They are also motivated by a fear that if left unchecked, the movement will succeed in normalizing a culture of anti-whiteness, with devastating effects not just for whites but for the country as a whole.
Are such worries warranted? How much of a problem is anti-whiteness, really?
To investigate this, in 2021, we hired YouGov, one of the world's leading survey research firms, to ask a nationally representative sample of 1,125 US adults whether they agreed or disagreed with five statements designed to measure their “anti-whiteness.”
The statements were:
● Most white people in this country believe that whites are better than other groups.
● Most white people in this country just don’t get it when it comes to understanding the hardships of other race groups.
● Most white people in this country would rather keep society as it is rather than make changes that would benefit other groups.
● Most white people in this country don’t care about the hardships experienced by other race groups.
● Most white people in this country are reluctant to give up their white privilege even though doing so would make society more equal.
We found there’s a lot of anti-whiteness out there, including among whites! Blacks were the most anti-white (69-79 percent), followed by Latinos (47- 62 percent), whites (40-53 percent), and other race groups (33-39 percent). Anti-whiteness, it seems, is far from rare, making concerns about its effects on society far from unreasonable.
These results may come as a surprise to those who view the US as a hopelessly white supremacist society where whites are universally admired and put on a pedestal. The data suggest this is far from the truth.
What About Anti-Blackness?
Racial stereotyping is of course nothing new. For decades researchers have been examining whites’ negativity toward blacks. So, for comparison, we asked respondents to consider four statements drawn from this large body of research:
● If Black people would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.
● Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same.
● How much of the racial tension that exists in the United States today do you think Black people are responsible for creating, none of it, some of it, or all of it?
● In general, do you think Black people have too little, about the right amount, or too much influence in US politics?
Like anti-whiteness, anti-blackness was endorsed to some degree by all race groups, but in the opposite direction. Blacks were the least anti-black (6-25 percent), followed by Latinos (11-37 percent), then whites (29-52 percent), then other race groups (33-69 percent).
The results for anti-blackness coincide with a vast amount of prior research. They suggest, perhaps not surprisingly, that negativity toward blacks continues to be a cause for concern in the US.
Why draw attention to anti-whiteness?
When we look around at American society today, we are struck by the profound taboo against overt racism toward people of color. The strength of this taboo would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. But we are also concerned, based on the above data, that negativity toward whites may be on the rise. This too would have seemed unimaginable a half century ago.
The question that troubles us is this: Can a society continue making progress toward racial justice while failing to safeguard it for everyone, including whites?
Take diversity training, something that, according to a recent Global Industry Analysts, Inc. study, a growing number of Americans in many employment sectors have experienced in recent years.
Imagine if instead of using the language of “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” and “white fragility” – which most standard diversity training protocols do – such training emphasized shared values that transcend race. What if instead of dividing people into oppressors and oppressed based on skin color, which is standard for diversity training programs, the goal was to cultivate cohesion and trust across racial lines?
Over a century of sociological research supports the idea that shared values are a powerful form of social cohesion. The challenge for diversity trainers, then, is to identify participants’ shared values and use them to bridge differences across racial lines. Do such commonalities exist? Yes. A recent Siena College Research Institute study found that Americans strongly endorse core values of equality, liberty, and progress, values that have been a source of unity in the American context for centuries.
Of the diversity training programs we’re aware of, Sheena Mason’s comes closest to embodying this inclusive approach. Mason, a professor of African American literature at SUNY Oneonta, leads a diversity training organization that seeks to “create a culture in the workplace that unites people across differences” by focusing on participants’ shared humanity. Sociologist George Yancey uses a similar approach. In his book Beyond Racial Divisions: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism, Yancey presents a “mutual accountability model” for overcoming racial divisions. A core feature of the model is to:
“...identify what we have in common with those with whom we disagree…” and remember that “we share some common values and concerns…[R]ecognizing what we have in common can help us forge a common identity that allows for more collaboration…Agreement may be based on similar goals or values shared between the groups...The key is that before we start looking at our disagreements, we should first identify our agreements.” (p. 35)
We couldn't agree more.
Today’s antiracism activists get many things right. They illuminate the effects of implicit biases in everyday life and illustrate the many ways people of color have been prevented throughout history from competing with whites on a level playing field. These insights can raise Americans’ awareness about racism and motivate them to rectify its wrongs.
But today's antiracism activists also get some things wrong. Most fundamentally, whether intentionally or not, they speak in terms that portray contemporary whites as racists and blame them for past and present racial inequalities.
This is a problem for two reasons. First, negatively stereotyping whites is antithetical to the pursuit of racial justice for all. Second, it risks alienating many whites, which may not only reduce their motivation to participate in efforts to improve society but may drive them to support extremist political groups that promise to defend their “white identities.”
Our data suggests these problems are worth taking seriously. It’s impossible to say where the tipping point is. But it’s reasonable to assume that one exists and that if we don't address the problem of anti-whiteness in public discussions of race and racism, we may soon have far graver problems to address.
Eric Silver is a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Penn State.
John Iceland is the Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State.
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