White identity is a powerful force in American politics with far-reaching consequences that are increasingly difficult to ignore. Former President Trump eventually came to power using subtle – and not so subtle – language to address millions of white Americans who were concerned that their power and influence in American society was diminishing.
His strategy of white identity politics continued to work. Not just Trump Campaign on this news in 2016 and winBut after losing the 2020 election, some of his supporters were so taken with his embassy that they stormed the U.S. Capitol to defend white power and supremacy. While white identity politics in the US has a long, dirty history before Trump, we can see his strategy take root in states across the country. Today, Republican lawmakers across the country are working on implementation anti-democratic and illiberal politics this threatens to undermine a multiracial democracy while protecting the power and status of whites.
Understand grievances and fear fuel the politics of white identity on the political right is of paramount importance to our politics. But “white” is not something that only enlivens white conservative politics. White is also central to the political identity of white liberals, especially as white Americans must navigate a social and political world in which White is often and explicitly associated with racist injustice – an uncomfortable association for both white conservatives and white liberals.
For years we have tried to understand how whites and perceived threats (in social science jargon)Threats to social identity”) Affecting White Americans’ perception of their standing in society. In particular, we were interested in capturing the feeling of white Americans about how their racial identity is viewed by others, especially given the increasing discussion where white Americans are viewed as both Perpetrators of racial inequality and the beneficiaries of white privilege.
To that end, in our research we asked white Americans to list the traits, traits, or behaviors that they think other people connect with whites. Participants came with a variety of responses, including positive stereotypes like “working hard” and negative stereotypes like “arrogant”. They then rated these traits and described most of them as extremely positive or extremely negative. But whether white Americans believed that others thought of white positively or negatively varied greatly depending on their ideology – white liberals were more likely to list negative stereotypes than white conservatives.
There were also important issues in the stereotypes listed. The most consistent included stereotypes associating whiteness with racism and bigotry, such as “biased” and “KKK,” and stereotypes associating whiteness with privilege, such as “rich” and “entitled”. Not all of the interviewed characteristics were properly classified as “racist” or “privileged”, but almost two-thirds of the participants indicated at least one characteristic that could be classified as such. In sum, white people, both liberals and conservatives, think that their racial identity has both positive and negative connotations. The difference then is how they think other people perceive white, and how they, in turn, deal with situations where their racial identity is in question, especially when it’s uncomfortable, e.g. Suggesting white can confer privilege or harbor racism.
A plethora of research on the subject has shown that discomfort is associated with both racism or privilege can lead white people to adopt a variety of defensive beliefs and attitudes. In fact, studies have found that concerns about being viewed as racist lead many whites to avoid situations where they say or do something that might be construed as racist, including talking to blacks. The psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio call this “aversive racism, ”Or some form of avoidance-based racial discrimination. You find this practice more common among white liberals, who are more motivated to protect their self-image than to be egalitarian.
And when white Americans feel that their whites are negatively associated with privilege, research shows that their response is particularly complex. As a psychologist Eric Knowles and colleagues writeThere are at least three ways that white Americans respond to associations between white and privilege: 1) They can deny the existence of inequality; 2) they can distance themselves from their whiteness; or 3) they can work to dismantle the systems that primarily maintain white privilege (although this strategy, the authors note, is probably the least preferred strategy for most white Americans).
In one of many studies that illustrate how people can refuse to be privileged, scholars L. Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery find that, after being reminded of their racial advantages, white Americans are more likely to try to break away from any racial privilege to distance have benefited from their life story and instead describe them in terms of personal and economic disadvantage. Phillips and Lowery find that these narratives help white people protect their self-image and avoid discomfort without having to deny inequalities in ways that may betray or give up their values Privileges that you might prefer to enjoy unconsciously.
Understanding how white Americans respond to the perception of their whites can help us better understand behavior across the ideological spectrum. For example a reason why Whites on the political right can be so opposite The New York Times 1619 Project, which emphasizes the role of slavery in structuring many aspects of American society, is because the project is inherently implies whiteness. This in turn reminds white Americans of negative associations associated with white identity, namely the relationship between white and racism. And because white conservatives are more likely to believe that criticism of white is unfounded compared to their white liberal counterparts, they may display a greater sense of anger and backlash towards associations they consider unfair.
On the other hand, white liberals often feel motivated to act in a racist and egalitarian manner distance themselves from the same negative stereotypes of white. Thinking like this, “These whites are” bad, “but I want to see myself as good people.” However, to oblige anti-racist action is not an easy solution as it is not always effective in warding off the negative emotions that come with recognizing a legacy of racism. Furthermore, this strategy can be neglected in actually tackling racial inequality, as it does not always prioritize the practical needs of people of color emotional and psychological needs of white anti-racists.
What’s the bottom line? White identity is an important part of our politics, especially in shaping the beliefs of white conservatives and white liberals. And as conversations about white identity focus more on the privilege and inequality that white can bring about, we are likely to see more concerns among white Americans that their identities could be threatened and socially degraded. However, an important finding from decades of social science research is that people have a variety of strategies with which they can cope with threats to their identity. Some of these strategies are designed to maintain the status quo while others challenge it. Which path white Americans take then may not only depend on whether they are conservative or liberal, but also how they believe that others perceive their white at a given moment.
This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation; The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.