By David K. Shipler
About 20 years ago, I asked a small class of white students at the University of Maine what percentage of the American population they thought was black. Maine is one of the whitest states in the union, so these students—all from Maine—saw hardly any African-Americans in their daily lives. But their estimates were high: One woman thought 50 percent of the country’s population was black. Another student agreed, and a couple of others guessed 40 and 30 percent. The actual figure was 13 percent (and, at the time, 0.4 percent in Maine).
Why such exaggeration? And what did it signify? Was it one seed in the tangle of identity issues that brought Donald Trump to power two decades later?
For a long time, in the midst of campaigns for affirmative action and other remedies to the wrongs of racial discrimination, polling has found many whites exaggerating not only the numbers of blacks but their prosperity and privileges. Last summer, only 2 percent of white Trump supporters, and just 13 percent of all whites surveyed, agreed that “white people benefit a great deal from advantages that blacks lack,” according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 62 percent of blacks recognized the existence of white privilege.
An earlier Pew poll showed African-Americans at least 20 percent more likely than whites to think that blacks were treated less fairly by the police, by the courts, by mortgage lenders, in the workplace, in stores and restaurants, and when voting in elections.
Most whites’ lack of direct experience in these matters forces them to rely on what they hear or see or read through various media. The Maine students’ exaggerated population estimates, which predated the internet and its platforms of distortion, were based largely on what they saw on television: numerous black basketball and football players, a growing presence of black actors and entertainers, and national newscasts on racial issues. Furthermore, discomfort and anxiety about blacks may also feed a tendency to inflate their numbers and influence.
We’ve seen vividly in this election the clash of belief and fact. This is not new, just more pernicious. When actual experience fails to support strong feelings, the feelings prevail, as documented in polls on affirmative action from 1988 to 1991 by the National Opinion Research Center. About two-thirds of Americans said that a white had a smaller chance of getting a job or a promotion than an equally or less qualified black. But when they were asked why they thought so, only 21 percent could say that they had seen it happen at work, just 15 percent that it had happened to a friend or relative, and merely 7 percent that they had experienced it personally.
Given the small proportion of blacks in the population, the risk of whites’ being passed over in this way is small, but the belief is powerful enough to induce many whites to see themselves as victims. Indeed, with many groups protesting their victimization justifiably—ethnic, racial, and religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people; women, and others—victimhood has grown into a badge of grievance.
With bitter pride, it is now worn by conservatives on campus, by Christians who cry persecution, and by many whites generally to counter the true victimization of minorities who have faced a legacy of discrimination. It’s tempting to scoff at the notion that American whites are victims, given their obvious historical privileges over blacks and other minorities. But when dominant groups adopt the mantle of victimhood, watch out. Imaginary victimhood has long fueled militia movements that preach “White Power” and racial separation. Feeling yourself a victim, and especially identifying with a victimized group, can be a prescription for rage.
What makes white victimhood complex, though, and not worthy of ridicule, is the toxic mixture of real economic hardship, a current of racial prejudice, and a resentment at a sense of powerlessness.
It’s no fantasy that many whites have suffered, especially those at the lower margins of the middle class. It would have been productive if they’d seen their reversals as bonding them with blacks of the same economic standing, and if they had found common purpose with the poor and near-poor, whose fate is also tied up in Democratic-supported government programs. It would have been illuminating if whites had understood that they are not the victims of immigrants or African-Americans, but of a system and an economy that robbed them of their security: their homes, their reliable jobs, their confidence in a stable future.
Instead, a kind of psychological separateness has developed. When 87 percent reject the notion that whites have privilege over blacks, they display a startling lack of both awareness and empathy. When many come to see their whiteness as an essential part of their identities, they open a new calculation.
This conscious white identity is relatively new. For most of modern American history, whiteness was “normal,” so tightly woven into the fabric of society that whites generally didn’t notice their own race. It was like a homegrown accent, so common that you didn’t think you had an accent when you spoke. If asked, “What are you?” most white Americans would not have mentioned race as the first, or even the second or third, identifying quality.
Lately, though, we’ve had a black president. Our demographics are shifting, and whites are told repeatedly that they will be a minority in the land. Racial injustice is on display in the police shootings of unarmed blacks. Campuses are roiled by attempts to exclude unpalatable speakers. Right-wingers denounce “political correctness,” which is code for racial tolerance. Whiteness takes on a deliberate overtone of self-awareness.
Progress in race relations is exceedingly difficult amid hardening identities and deafness to the other’s plight. Without whites’ acceptance that they do, indeed, benefit from the color of their skin, the society cannot address any but the most blatant forms of racism. The subtler, encrypted forms remain invisible. Yet they can affect hiring and promotions, and they can reinforce blacks’ sense of marginalization in ways that undermine performance in the classroom and the workplace.
That whites enjoy unearned privilege simply because of their race is not a new idea—W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in the 1930s—but it gained traction as a kind of teaching tool after the civil rights movement. Then, following the dramatic victories over de jure segregation, less overt biases supported by the society’s structure of white privilege became a focus of interest.
The most effective instructor was Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley, who wrote about her own prerogatives as a white woman.
In a paper entitled, “WhitePrivilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she listed the benefits she enjoyed because of her race: “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.” “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” “I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.” “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to ‘the person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.” “I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.” “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” And so on.
Her writing, “drawn from personal experience,” she told The New Yorker, “allowed readers to understand this rather complicated subject without feeling accused. . . . [Whites’] most common response was ‘I never thought about this before.’” And from people of color? “You showed me I’m not crazy.”
To get what she’s saying, though, you probably have to understand what people of color experience. Otherwise, the one-sentence vignettes of the white experience fall on fallow ground. And to understand what people of color experience, whites have to listen to them, and do so with empathy. There is not much listening going on across racial lines—or across any lines in America. And there is an empathy deficit as huge as the national debt.