When Whites Feel Marginalized

In an era in which all groups, even the historically empowered majority, see themselves as victims of bias, deciding from which direction to combat the problem of discrimination will only continue to become an increasingly difficult task.
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This month, I and my colleague Mike Norton, of Harvard Business School, published research findings regarding how Americans today think about racial bias. We found some consensus: on average, both White and Black Americans agree that bias against Blacks was prevalent several decades ago. But we also found noteworthy areas of disagreement, namely that many Blacks see such racism as ongoing, whereas Whites tend to see it as a problem that has been more or less resolved.

But perhaps the most provocative finding from our survey -- and the one that attracted a fair amount of media attention over the past week -- was that many Whites in the study expressed the belief that these days, a new form of bias is on a dramatic upswing. Which group do they see as being the primary target of today's racial bias? Themselves. Our results indicate that when talking about the present day, Whites, on average, now view anti-White bias as even more prevalent than anti-Black bias. This is a sentiment, unsurprisingly, that isn't shared by Black Americans.

This notion that Whites have replaced Blacks as the primary victims of discrimination is particularly notable when you consider that by nearly any metric in any important domain, statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black versus White Americans. From infant mortality to education level to loan rates to employment, it becomes difficult to tell an objective story that ends with White Americans being disproportionately disadvantaged. Yes, many Whites have been hurt by the recent economic downturn, but analyses indicate that unemployment has hit the Black and Latino populations even harder.

Even analyses that control for socioeconomic status demonstrate, for example, that resumés sent out to prospective employers with a "Black-sounding" name on them would receive 50% more callbacks if they simply had a "White-sounding" name instead. Yet specific tales (in some cases apocryphal) of the minority candidate who received a job offer, promotion, or college admission over a -- quote-unquote -- "objectively more qualified" White applicant remain powerfully salient to the point where they're apparently more persuasive than aggregated statistics.

Why is the perception of anti-White bias so strong? Consider a brief history of recent efforts to curtail discrimination in the United States: the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's; women's intensifying efforts to secure gender equality in the 1960's and 1970's; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; the push for gay marriage in the past decade. Many Americans applaud this march toward full and equal rights for all citizens. At the same time, though, a nagging voice in the minds of others asks at whose expense?

The "prototypical" American has historically been thought of as the White heterosexual Christian. For members of this demographic, change to the status quo can be threatening. Thus emerges a view of the disparate groups named above as clamoring for rights they have not earned, that they do not deserve, and that violate the very sense of what it means to be an American. Ironically, it would seem that one outcome of traditionally marginalized groups having secured additional rights in recent years 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 tout as evidence of progress towards equality (for example, the election of a Black president) are seen by others as further evidence of the threats aligned against them. Consider some of the rhetoric associated with factions of the Tea Party, whose focus on the perceived values of the Founding Fathers is also a focus on the notion that these Fathers were White heterosexual Christians. Or the oft-voiced concern that political correctness has stifled traditional American values, as with the perceived "War on Christmas."

As a result, America is now witnessing an unprecedented fight for marginalized status, or what we term "jockeying for stigma." This pyrrhic competition is particularly noteworthy because being marginalized often equates to being powerless, yet many Whites increasingly see their perceived disadvantage as a rallying cry toward action.

This intensifying sense of marginalization among Whites has already begun to shift political discourse in the United States, as evidenced by the emergence of the Tea Party and the increasing number of lawsuits alleging so-called "reverse racism." When designing and proposing new policies designed to address bias, policymakers and politicians must take into account the fact that the word bias itself means very different things to different constituencies. In short, in an era in which all groups, even the historically empowered majority, see themselves as victims of bias, deciding from which direction to combat the problem of discrimination will only continue to become an increasingly difficult task.


Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

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