Last week, New York Times columnist Tom Edsall, in a piece about Donald Trump’s appeal among conservative voters, cited an alarming survey on white people’s racial attitudes that made me wonder if large segments of white America are completely misinterpreting what racism is and how prevalent it remains in our society.
Edsall pointed to a study conducted last fall by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that found that 52 percent of white respondents agreed with the following statement: “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
Among subsets of respondents, 76 percent of those affiliated with the Tea Party agreed with the statement. Another 61 percent of Republicans, and 53 percent of independents. A majority of whites over age 50 also agreed with the statement, and 58 percent of working-class whites agreed. Evangelical Protestants (63 percent) and Catholics (56 percent) also agreed.
62 percent of white Democrats disagreed, and 61 percent of those with a college education. White Americans under 50 also disagreed, even though it was close. Only 48 percent of whites between the ages of 18-29 agreed, and 49 percent of them disagreed. Of whites 30-49, 46 percent agreed and 52 percent disagreed.
Upon seeing these figures I immediately wondered about what exactly white Americans perceive racism to be, and how the supposed racism they receive has become equal to that of African Americans and other minority groups.
Did a leading American presidential candidate refer to large swaths of the white American population as “rapists” and “murderers”?
Have countless white Americans taken to the streets to express their frustrations with a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms and negatively impacts the lives of white Americans?
Are white Americans campaigning against profound levels of income inequality that negatively impact the white community far worse than other racial and ethnic groups in America?
When I look around America I do not see white voices making these complaints. Instead I see large amounts of white Americans expressing their frustration that some traditional white American values are being questioned, or are “under attack,” as some might say.
The controversy over the Confederate Flag has ruffled the feathers of many conservative white Americans because it questions the value and legacy of certain Southern traditions and their heroes. But should it be right for a nation’s or even a state’s decision to refrain from celebrating the lives and ideals of known traitors who were hell-bent on destroying America (who also happened to be white) to be viewed as a racist attack against the white race?
Additionally, the growth of Black Lives Matter has led many white Americans to proclaim that they are “under attack” along racial divisions, but the closest incidents of an “attack” have been occasional protests that have turned violent and resulted in the destruction of property. There has never been a concerted effort to destroy white-owned establishments in the movement, and the random destruction of property is defined as criminality and not racism.
Apart from the recent and unfounded accusation that Black Lives Matter has morphed or been hijacked into a rabid, uncontrollable movement that emphasizes the killing of white law enforcement officials, the greatest cause for concern has been the name of the movement. To some Americans, the name Black Lives Matter implies that other lives do not matter, despite the fact that this notion is actually the inverse of the intent of the name. Black Lives Matter’s intent is to highlight how historically and even to this day, but with lesser severity, black lives have been dehumanized, devalued, neglected, and abused within American society, and that collectively we need to put a stop to this damning status quo.
At no point has the existence of Black Lives Matter been about the dehumanizing or abusing of other races. It has not been about pitting the races against one another and saying that one race is superior to the other. It has been about highlighting the centuries of abuse inflicted upon black Americans, acknowledging the existing abuses, and aspiring to increase the empathy and humanity of the American public to combat these systemic problems.
Proclaiming that the movement should change its name to “All Lives Matter” or creating spin-off, competing slogans such as “Blue Lives Matter” only displays a lack of understanding of the intent of Black Lives Matter. And while the motivations of such reactionary suggestions might be honest and pure, I struggle to see how the misunderstanding of certain segments of white America regarding a national civil rights movement led by black Americans should be interpreted as a racial attack against white Americans.
Black Americans expressing their frustrations against the oppressive institutions that govern them that have been erected primarily by white Americans should not be viewed as a racial attack against white Americans.
In another PRRI survey, support among whites for public protests to combat an unfair government dropped dramatically—from 67 percent in favor to 48 percent—when the protesters were identified as black.
Criticism and racism are not one in the same, and we should not encourage lazily conflating the two.
The majority of the frustrations I hear white Americans express when racist accusations are made center on two main threads: that their lives and social structures should not be questioned and/or challenged, and secondly, that there is an inherent danger of foreign or dissimilar bodies.
These two perspectives are quite common throughout the world, so they are not necessarily “wrong” per se, but when you combine these attributes with the large expanses of land throughout America, it becomes clear that much of American civilization was built around the creation of various “whitopias”—to borrow the term from author Rich Benjamin.
The narrative of white families fleeing Europe to escape persecution and arriving in America to create their own utopian existence where they can practice their desired faith and associate with “their own kind” has been the heroic narrative that we have sold to the world. America had so much land to colonize—once the Native Americans were killed and forcefully removed from their land—that white people from across the world were encouraged to move here for sanctuary and opportunity. There was never much of a need to tolerate those who were different than you because you could always create a town or a suburban community that separated you and “your kind” from dissenting, dissimilar, or critical voices and people.
America has always been structured in such a way that white Americans were encouraged to build and expand this utopian or “whitopian” environment. Both directly and indirectly this has resulted in the dehumanizing and dismissing of non-white life, and the racist structures that have encouraged this forced separation.
However, in this modern world where information and individuals can move faster than previously imagined, the opportunity to escape and live in your own utopian world where you no longer need to value or listen to dissenting voices and may be fearful of foreign bodies is no longer an option. White Americans must now hear the voices of the previously oppressed.
White Americans receiving criticism from the people they have always demonized and oppressed regarding the structures that white society once thought to be utopian is not an act of racism upon white Americans. It is a step toward building more just and humane institutions and societies for all people regardless of race. Misinterpreting this collective social progress as anything else, and especially as a racially motivated attack, is a step in the wrong direction.