Race Basics: The Trouble With White People

Levittown

Despite U.S. Census projections indicating that whites will will no longer be the majority of Americans by 2042, racism will continue to be a definitive force in American politics.

Why? A growing body of research indicates that an increasing number of whites believe racism continues to plague us, but that whites, not people of color, are the new targets. That brand of racial denial appears to be inspired in no small part by the perception that people of color are taking over. And if that’s the case, white racial denial is likely to be reinforced as whites are relegated to minority status.

White people will also continue to be the largest racial minority group long after the mid-century mark. Moreover, they will be over-represented among voters as long as voting rights continue to exclude many new immigrants, the majority of whom are non-whites.

And never estimate what a minority of voters can accomplish. Keep in mind that conservative evangelicals in the U.S. have never been a majority of the electorate. Regardless, they were critical to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and their influence in the Republican Party continues to keep opposition to marriage equality and LGBTQ rights front and center on the Republican policy agenda, even as poll after poll indicates that, at least for younger voters, the sun is setting on these issues.

If that’s not enough to convince you, new research indicates that while the millennial generation seems less prone to paleo-racism (by which I mean overt racial stereotyping and discrimination), they also appear to be strongly committed to a neo-racist love-sees-no-color view of race that reduces racism to overt acts of individual bigotry rather than a basis of broad based institutional and structural inequality.

And, as colorblind racism trends up, the 1% continues to be almost exclusively white, and white elites continue to dominate just about every aspect of public life and commerce in the U.S., including the media.

We can’t just wait on the world to change, regardless of what John Mayer may have to say on the matter. If we want to end racism, we need to make it visible and expose its structural and institutional dimensions and dynamics. And given the corporate domination of media, a big part of that effort will have to occur in our public squares, at the mall, and on our neighbors’ doorsteps.

In this struggle we can’t give up on white people. I know this will disappoint some more militant (or maybe just sick and tired) readers, but unless we can move more whites onto our side, we will never end racism.

With that in mind, here are four tips for talking about racism with white people.

1. Don’t fall into the good v. evil trap. Racism is a moral issue, for sure, but we should reject the idea that racists are monsters.

We racial justice advocates have a relatively easy time accepting the notion that race is not natural; that it is, instead, a political construct created to serve a profit motive.  What seems tougher for us to swallow is that, for that very reason, racial prejudice can be held by anyone, regardless of race. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a very real difference between white racial prejudice and ordinary bigotry. When racial prejudice is expressed by whites, their inclusion in (or at least relative proximity to) powerful institutions gives that prejudice enough force, especially when expressed collectively, to create and maintain the deeply rooted structural racial disadvantages faced by people of color that are indicated by significant gaps in wealth and income between us and white people.

But, whites’ relative proximity to power doesn’t make them evil, just more influential. This point is important because labeling people as evil who are ordinary in every other aspect of their lives except on the question of race creates a credibility gap among their peers that gives racists more ammunition to use against us.

2. Racial justice advocates often talk about the harm that’s done to people who are excluded from institutions of power in the U.S. However, we rarely talk about the effects of inclusion in those same institutions on those on the inside.

Racially conservative whites in the U.S. have been convinced that their personal, family, and community security relies upon the exclusion of people of color. And they’ve been convinced of this not just by right wing groups like the Tea Parties and the Klan; they’ve been convinced of this by the past practices of our government.

The white middle class in the U.S. rose from the rubble of the Great Depression as a result of an economic stimulus package of programs and policies that was won by the Roosevelt administration. But winning that package of programs required cutting a deal with racially conservative Southern legislators that made Roosevelt’s stimulus racially exclusive.

That massive, mid-twentieth century government investment in white families gave white people a stake in the maintenance of white supremacy that was (and is) material, concrete, and consequential. When white people fight against busing and other efforts to integrate public schools, oppose affirmative action programs that provide access to public universities, government contracts, and public employment opportunities to people of color, they’re fighting for exclusive control of institutions and opportunities that were created either directly or indirectly through those racially exclusive government subsidies.

We need to remind people of this history. Those government programs that created the white middle class were paid for by every worker, including workers of color.

3. We can’t win the fight for racial justice by labeling all white people haters. Race is a cage that keeps all but the most powerful among us trapped in perpetual insecurity, fighting against one another for privileges rather than with one another for power. But the bars of that cage are tempered not just by privilege but by fear. When whites resist demands for full inclusion of people of color, they’re responding to that fear.

Years of divisive racial politics in the U.S. have convinced most of us, regardless of race, that there isn’t enough opportunity and institutional protection to go around. Those on the inside of institutional protection and opportunity believe that if they let those who have been excluded inside, some of them will be pushed out. White resistance to including people of color is rooted in love of family, concern for community, and the fear that including us will push those beloved families and communities out. Calling those outside undeserving is, at least in part, nothing more than a rationalization for succumbing to that fear. We need to approach the project of winning racial justice as a struggle against fear.

And that brings me to my last tip.

4. In order to win against racism, we need more than criticism of those who appear to be hoarding the goods. We need solutions that make room in our still far from complete democracy for all of us so that none of us need fear exclusion, exploitation, and the humiliation of being denied basic human dignity. And isn’t that what justice is all about anyway?

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Race Basics: The Trouble With White People

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  1. @razzsb May 21, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    Very interesting. What do you think of this article which thinks that white people need to create their own racially-just but specific culture and identity?
    http://www.salon.com/2013/04/25/how_can_white_americans_be_free/

  2. Wendy Jane May 22, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    thanks for this article, Scot. I was just talking with a friend, both of us white, who care deeply about racial justice and equity, and while I have not considered myself a political person, and have not done things in that arena, have in recent years become vocal (through my blog, http://www.wendyjanesoulshake.com) and by always speaking up now with friends, co-workers, etc. when I recognize the more subtle forms of racism and places where white people are being blind to how their status and privilege as a white person impacts people of color in negative ways. I sometimes get disheartened though when I see–mostly on social media, people of color stating things about white people–either making fun of them for thinking they are “different” than other white people and not racist, or that they don’t need or want our presence, or have us as allies in the fight against institutionalized racism, or that white people can never “get it.” I know these feelings are not representative of any entire race, but I figure that we all need to work together and have the talks so we can better understand one anothers’ fears and desires, and move forward to dismantle these systems that are keeping things far from equal.

  3. Justice not Equality May 26, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    One thing we must realize, the United States of America and its Constitution where only created for white protestant males.

    They imported all other races like cattle to serve them and no other purpose ever crossed their mind.

    In a country built for the purpose of power and domination, its society can only follow that purpose.

    What we must understand is that most Europeans/European descendents want to hold on to that past, the vision of their founding fathers. A new world for them to be in power and have every other people look up to them and follow/obey them.

    Nothing else will do!

    All non-Europeans must stop following and go back to serving themselves. Asians do it, Hispanics do it, but Africans/African Americans still don’t understand this concept. They are taught to dislike anything truly African, like communal-living (now known as communism), belief that women are unequal (Africans had women gods, which supersedes women liberation), Africans aren’t smart and have no enginuity (whil they built the pyramids and created universities before any European country ever existed), and Aficans had no religion (while Africans had belief systems in place before the King James Version of the Bible, so Jews aren’t the only true spiritual beings).

    So, the questions to ask is why haven’t Africans been given justice? Why do all countries prey on Africa? Why is everything African considers dark and bad?

    Answer these questions and you will find the true nature of a culture hell-bent on keeping everything in their possession and keeping their generations in control. A culture created and built from centuries of massacres, domination and carnage even against their own who oppose them (though not may oppose).

    We shouldn’t be surprised how the Western world is today based on the real history of control, oppression and injustice. Not the history we are taught in school of freedom, liberty and justice for all.

  4. Rashnu May 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Move more white people onto the non-white team? That’s a tough one. It usually ends up happening the other way around. It’s already challenging enough to stop non-white people from defecting to the white side. Just like the Italians, Irish, and other southern and eastern European groups who did not have “white” majority status when they first arrived in America, but are now “white”, there are people/groups today who are not classified as/accepted as “white” who may be “white” in the future. That seems to be the trend. An increasing number of people are adopting white social attitudes, white values, white views, etc. As white people co-opt and assimilate more non-white people to serve white interests, more people will have a stake in protecting the status quo. Authors like George Yancey (“Who Is White?”) and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (“Racism Without Racists”) have been exploring this trend. Some suspect the traditional white/non-white understanding of racism may face a growing rivalry from a black/non-black one. Those are a few of many possibilities.

  5. Lorna June 9, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    Thank you for your brilliant, illuminating article.

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