Why That Harvard/Tufts Study Isn’t Breaking News

By Arturo R. García

Another week, another head-scratching study result. Or so you’d think, right?

The study, conducted by researchers at Tufts and Harvard Universities, concluded that white people think the prejudices blacks faced during the Civil Rights era are literally in the past. But it’s not all rosy, apparently, for the majority of the 209 white people (alongside 208 blacks) surveyed. From the abstract:

We show that this emerging belief reflects Whites’ view of racism as a zero-sum game, such that decreases in perceived bias against Blacks over the past six decades are associated with increases in perceived bias against Whites—a relationship not observed in Blacks’ perceptions. Moreover, these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias.

But, setting aside questions regarding the size of the survey group and the focus on white/black relations in an increasingly diverse country, one has to wonder: is this really a surprise?

Researchers Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers say as much in a column for the New York Times:

One outcome of granting rights to traditionally marginalized groups has been to leave many whites feeling marginalized themselves. What are the consequences of this sense of marginalization? For one, the very same developments that some would point to as evidence of progress toward equality (an African-American president, a Latina Supreme Court justice) are seen by others as further evidence of the threats aligned against them.

Consider the rhetoric associated with some members of the Tea Party, whose emphasis on the perceived values of the founding fathers implicitly centers on the notion that the founders were white heterosexual Christians. Or the oft-voiced concern that political correctness has stifled traditional American values, as with the idea of a “war on Christmas.”

As a result, there’s a “jockeying for stigma” among groups in America today. This competition is surprising because being marginalized often equates to being powerless, yet many whites now use their sense of marginalization as a rallying cry toward action. Already, this sentiment is affecting political discourse, as shown by the rise of the Tea Party and the growing number of lawsuits alleging “reverse racism.”

Besides the larger political and historical examples, though, haven’t we seen some of these fears play out on a smaller scale? Consider:

  • People who makes it a point to tell you they “like all types of music, except rap,” and radio stations who use that statement to advertise themselves.
  • Privilege-Denying Dudes.
  • Basketball fans who call, say, Jimmer Fredette “a gamer” while decrying Allen Iverson as “a ballhog” and “a thug,” or lament that the game is “all about who jumps highest.”

But potentially even more disturbing is a Cal-Berkeley study highlighted by Joan Walsh at Salon:

In an experiment known as “Me/Not Me,” respondents were asked to quickly rate whether a series of terms having to do with race, ethnicity and diversity had anything to do with them personally. It found that the white students related more favorably to the terms associated with “colorblindness” — equality, unity, sameness, similarity, color blind, and color blindness – than to words associated with “multiculturalism”: diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism.

What does this tell us? The study authors (as do I) take for granted that it matters — it would be a good thing — if whites embrace diversity and multicultural initiatives, whether in schools, workplaces and community groups, and they therefore suggest that people designing such programs consider that “whites’ reactions to multiculturalism … are rooted in the basic social psychological need for inclusion and belonging.” Stressing that multiculturalism encompasses the wide variety of white ethnic and class experiences might help. Emphasizing words with positive resonance like “equality” and “unity” might too.

But when does inclusiveness become self-erasure? Did the white people in these studies ever learn to accept that there’s some experiences they probably just won’t get to totally understand because of their privilege? And what happens – for everybody – if they don’t?

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  • PatrickInBeijing

       Thanks for this.  Just when it seems like it can’t get worse.  Alas, though, I am not rich, so I could not look at the study itself.  I wonder who these white people were, and if they are claimed to be a representative sample, by who?

     It reminds me of a study where a group of white people were shown a picture of 100 silhouettes, of whom 5 were filled in with the color black, and the rest were black lines around white space.    They were asked to estimate the percentages of each race, and consistently said that white people were only about 70% of the outlines.

     In terms of white folks not relating to multicultural and diversity as terms,  it seems to me that part of the problem is the idea of “norm”.    The media in the US is still so racist and white, that when people look at TV or movies, the “norm” they see is an almost all white society.  Top this off with the continuing segregation of  American society, and it is sad, but not surprising.

    It certainly won’t change by itself.  The government seems to have (over the last 30 years or so) pretty much given up the fight against discrimination in areas like housing.  Housing discrimination is important because segregated neighborhoods lead to lack of contact with other races on any meaningful level, which (IMHO) is a major contributor to ignorance and prejudice.

    Now, the right is rolling back the idea of integration in public schools (which was always limited by white flight to the suburbs and by home schooling and small racist private academies).  This will lead to the further segregation of people’s lives with the consequences you might expect.

    And so it goes, throughout much of society. 

    As to the idea of a “zero sum game”, this is standard conservative language, and the right wing dominated media pounds it into people’s heads day and night.    The idea that there is one pie, and only pie, and the only way to be fed is to refuse to share it, is too common among Americans today.  We also see it in terms of immigration and foreign policy.

    It certainly won’t change by itself, it needs a lot of lifting by everyone who wants to live in a different world.   We have a long way to go, la lutta continua.

  • moosh

    Awesome writing. 

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  • Anonymous

    From Hepshiba’s Pad: White Privilege Diary Series #1–White Feminist Privilege in Organizatons

    The core group began by thinking it was easy to go beyond tokenism to integrate women of color into the organization. They ended, however, with the realization that genuine integration means not only attracting more women of color to events, but also shifting the structure of the organization to include women of color as powerful forces in shaping the organization. Perhaps because their racism made them see me as a “white ally,” these resistant white feminists were often very up-front with me about their decision not to share power with women of color.  One Board president told me it “simply isn’t worth it” to consult women of color about what they want, because she realized it would take the organization in a direction she didn’t want it to go, and serve a constituency she now realized (as a result of our “counseling”) she didn’t want to serve.  Other white women said that it would make them “too uncomfortable,” and that, for them, TWFC would no longer be a refuge and a place that boosted their egos by affirming they “did good.”  Instead, they’d have to be “careful” all the time, and would be self-conscious about what the women of color thought of them. In short, given the comfort of racism, and the discomfort of active anti-racism, they chose racism, outright.  What was there for me to do at that point, except clarify that they had chosen to perpetuate racism, rather than to end it?

    Perhaps an answer to your question?