Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Clara Wilkins: The dangerous belief that white people are under attack

In August, the Justice Department decided to investigate instances of bias against whites in university admissions. Since then, campuses have been flyered with “It’s okay to be white,” and in November, violence erupted at the University of Connecticut during a speech about discrimination against whites.

Are white people actually under attack?

After all, in the U.S., whites have historically been viewed as perpetrators of bias, and racial minorities as the victims.

But perceptions of this relationship have shifted. According to a recent survey, the majority of whites – 55 percent – now believe that whites experience racial discrimination.

What’s more, whites believe bias against their group is increasing, while believing bias against blacks is declining.

What’s behind this dramatic change in attitudes?

Research from my lab and others has found that social changes are a big reason. We’ve also found that these perceptions of bias – despite not being grounded in reality – can have real consequences.

The threat of social change

There’s comfort in predictability, and people have a psychological tendency to favor the status quo.

For some, a preference for the status quo also means a preference for a social order in which whites have more status, power and wealth than racial minorities.

This reality – still ingrained in American society – was seemingly interrupted by Barack Obama’s historic presidential win in 2008.

After his election, many started believing racial progress was taking place. There was the sense that more racial minorities were occupying the high-power, high-status positions historically reserved for whites.

For many, this was a good thing. But for the subset of white Americans who think that they rightfully deserve to have a higher status than racial minorities, it was unsettling: Were they falling behind? Was society becoming stacked against them? Had whites become victims?

In a series of studies conducted while Obama was president, psychologist Cheryl Kaiser and I were able to show how this phenomenon played out.

We asked participants to either read an article about racial progress or a neutral article. Then we assessed whether they believe whites experience racial discrimination. We also assessed the extent to which they endorsed the racial hierarchy.

Among white participants who endorsed the racial status hierarchy, those that read about racial progress believed whites experience more bias than those who read a neutral article.

It’s important to note that this wasn’t the case for all whites: If participants rejected the racial hierarchy, they didn’t increase the belief that whites are discriminated against after reading about racial progress.

Essentially, this study indicates that some whites don’t welcome social progress – they actually respond by seeing themselves as victims of discrimination.

The country’s growing racial diversity is also likely fueling perceptions of anti-white bias. While whites currently comprise the majority of the U.S. population, recent census projections suggest that within the next several decades, whites will become a numerical minority.

According to recent research, if whites are alerted to this trend, they are more likely to fear being discriminated against.

In sum, social change – whether it’s racial progress or increasing demographic diversity – has caused some white Americans to see themselves as victims of racism.

The slippery slope of whites feeling victimized

My other research with psychologist Joseph Wellman suggests that this phenomenon isn’t benign. It leads some to adopt perspectives that could, ultimately, exacerbate social inequity.

For whites who are particularly eager to maintain the racial social order, the idea of anti-white bias is particularly alarming. It implies that the entire social system is unstable, and they are eager to restore it.

These people might attempt to “reestablish” the group’s position because they believe it has been damaged.

This could play out in a number of ways.

One way is through support for other white people who claim to be victims of racial discrimination. There’s a tendency to respond negatively to black people who claim to be victims of discrimination: People see them as complainers who use racism as an excuse for their shortcomings.

White people who support a racial hierarchy, on the other hand, respond relatively favorably to other white people who claim to be victims of anti-white bias – and say they’d be more willing to help those whites out.

They also might respond by trying to minimize opportunities for other racial groups. For example, when white people think they’re being discriminated against, my collaborators and I found they’re less inclined to support affirmative action policies. They say they’re also more willing to support policies that help white people, like efforts to address discrimination against whites.

It goes without saying that in a country where racial educational, employment and wealth disparities persist, greater attention to bias against whites (and less to bias against racial minorities) would only exacerbate social inequality.


First published in The Conversation. Included in Vox Populi with permission.


Clara Wilkins

4 comments on “Clara Wilkins: The dangerous belief that white people are under attack

  1. Dear Japheth
    January 4, 2018

    The only thing whites fear is the fear whites have inflicted upon others returning upon whites own head and losing power, control and dominance.

    Discrimination against African-Americans and others have always existed. I believe what can be misconstrued as “discrimination” against whites is the global and national level of undeniable recent awareness of white bigotry, hatefulness, corruption, racism and slaughter of innocent African lives!

    I believe also that the soon pending judgments against the gentiles will appear to be social discrimination against whites, when in essence it will be the wrath clouds of Yahweh gathering for an outpour that no man or president can prevent.

    If repentance was made in the season allotted by Yahweh for repentance, then judgment would not be necessary; but sometimes judgment by a Judge is the only thing that will stop criminal (sinful) behavior.

    Prophetic Words About Japheth: https://dearjapheth.wordpress.com/prophetic-words-about-japheth/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trixy Deans
    January 4, 2018

    Are you saying that the whites feeling victimized is not real.
    I watched a debate recently where one speaker talking about employment equality stated that if the C Vs of two candidates for a job, one white, one an oppressed minority (their words) were equal the job should be given to the minority. When challenged that surely the white person who did not get the job would have been victimized and worst victimized based upon the color of their skin the white privilege card was shown. Surely a fairer solution to this question would be a coin toss as the looser could then blame lady luck not the color of their skin.
    If the views of the individual in the debate represent main stream thinking in certain areas of society then there may be some substance to the whites feeling victimized


  3. daniel r. cobb
    January 2, 2018

    While many millions of white Americans voted for Barack Obama and welcomed his presidency, many of course did not. The majority of the nation may have turned a corner, if only briefly, but millions of American were not willing to join in, and the backlash against Obama by hard core racists was severe. Candidate Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other president, ever, due to the early flood of threats he and his family received and continued to receive throughout his presidency. The number of hate crimes committed by whites against blacks (and Muslims) skyrocketed during his presidency. Hard core racists are, well, hard core.
    It’s worth pointing out that America’s white majority population immigrated here primarily from Europe. But Europe today consists mostly of developed democracies and economies, and immigrants/refugees now are coming mostly from non-Caucasian countries – which explains why the Republicans are freaking out more than ever about immigration. The numerical dominance of whites is slipping away. Increased racial tensions appear to be a long term problem. i wish we could grow up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your research has merit. I find that people who vote conservative are in this category. I suspect Make America Great is based on this fear. It’s a return to that time when whites had supremacy.

    Liked by 2 people

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