Why white people think they're the real victims of racism
When you see a story with a headline like "New research finds that prosecutors give white defendants better deals than black defendants," you may not be surprised. After all, it's just one of a myriad of ways in which researchers have identified ongoing racial discrimination, whether it's in housing or employment or the way people are treated by law enforcement. On the other hand, you might dismiss it as fake news, knowing that the real victims of racial discrimination are white people.
If that sounds silly to you, I have some bad news: There are millions of people who think that's what the state of racism in America is. According to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 55 percent of white Americans believe that whites suffer from racial discrimination in America today.
This isn't the first time we've seen a poll result like that. Earlier this year, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found 52 percent of working class whites saying discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities (though the number was smaller among whites with higher education levels). And last year, Gallup found 43 percent of whites saying discrimination against whites is "widespread" in America.
What form is this discrimination against whites supposed to take? Are they getting pulled over and searched by the police? Followed around by security guards in stores? Subjected to invidious stereotypes as people and institutions regard them not as individuals but primarily as undifferentiated members of a racial category? No, probably not. If you asked, a lot of those respondents would probably say "Affirmative action!", though in reality that affects only a tiny number of people.
But affirmative action does play an important role in the feelings of many whites, as both a symbol of how minorities supposedly get unearned benefits and as a vehicle by which old racial animus was modernized to become contemporary racial resentment, a socially unacceptable feeling replaced with one possible to air in polite company.
Let's take a trip down memory lane all the way back to 1990, when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina aired the infamous "white hands" ad in his bid for re-election against Harvey Gantt, an African-American who had been mayor of Charlotte:
Though Helms was a virulent racist, this ad is all about fair treatment for whites: "You needed that job. You were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?" The point was to give white voters a more practical explanation for their feelings, a language to talk about it that didn't sound nakedly racist.
My point in bringing up that vivid illustration is that for decades, conservatives have been relentlessly delivering a message to white voters that they are the true victims of discrimination. As a pair of researchers wrote last year:
Our research also suggests that among whites, there's a lingering view that the American Dream is a "fixed pie," such that the advancement of one group of citizens must come at the expense of all the other groups. Whites told us they see things as a zero-sum game: Any improvements for black Americans, they believe, are likely to come at a direct cost to whites. Black respondents in our surveys, meanwhile, report believing that outcomes for blacks can improve without affecting outcomes for white Americans. [The Washington Post]
The idea of any advancement for minorities coming at the expense of whites gets constantly reinforced, nowhere more than on Fox News, the most important conservative media outlet, where white identity politics is always on the schedule.
Its foremost purveyor was Bill O'Reilly, who recently left the channel after it was revealed that he had settled lawsuits with a series of women claiming he had sexually harassed them. In his many years as the highest rated host on cable news, O'Reilly not only assembled a long record of racist statements, but told his viewers over and over again that whites and Christians were victimized by a left that wielded awesome power to discriminate against them. Or as he put it once, "If you're a Christian or a white man in the U.S.A., it's open season on you."
He had plenty of company in other conservative media, particularly in the Obama years. Hosts like Rush Limbaugh would tell their listeners, "Obama's entire economic program is reparations" — in other words, stealing from virtuous whites to bestow benefits on undeserving blacks. The campaign against white America would be unrelenting, from the most powerful person in the country. "This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people," said Glenn Beck. And he was coming for you.
Any other minority who ascended to a position of power was likely to be described by conservatives as a racist who would use that position to victimize innocent whites. You might remember that when Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, conservatives charged not only that she was an unqualified affirmative action hire (of course), but that she was anti-white. "A white man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw," said Newt Gingrich.
After eight years of hearing those messages, it isn't surprising that many whites felt that they were oppressed and held back, particularly if the circumstances of their own lives were not what they would have liked. Then along came Donald Trump, who told them that they didn't even have to be shy about it anymore. They could proudly proclaim all those resentments — against racial minorities, against immigrants, against women — and rally behind the most unabashedly bigoted and vulgar candidate anyone had ever seen.
And when Trump runs for re-election in three years, don't be surprised if his campaign is intensely racialized, as he realizes that getting all those white voters angry and riled up is his only path to victory. It'll sound awfully familiar.