Opinion: Whitewashing white identity politics
Last month, a student I am fortunate to call a friend published a hyperpartisan column claiming Donald Trump was at the forefront of an anti-racist coalition motivated by grievance against media coverage of right-wing political figures and “hedonistic” social mores. He argued Trump’s election was an elaborate prank against the media in response to unfair accusations of Republican racism (presumably by affirming such accusations).
The author made no attempt to prove this theory yet, when contacted, dismissed any role of racism in Trump’s election and insisted the president was not a racist (prank notwithstanding) and that such absurd accusations explained his appeal.
While Trump’s status as a civil rights icon merits no serious response, the author failed to recognize that racism was both the organizing principle of his campaign and a defining characteristic of his base.
Survey research offers telling insight into Republican voters’ views on race. The University of Chicago found that in 2016, 42% of white Republicans believed African Americans were lazier than whites, 55% believed they faced higher poverty due to lack of motivation and willpower and 26% would oppose a family member marrying a black person (compared to 24%, 26% and 12% of white Democrats, respectively).
While it may follow that voters who believe blacks are inferior might prefer the candidate best known for calling Mexicans “rapists” and accusing the first black president of being born in Kenya, many recent studies directly implicate racism in their voting decisions. An analysis of the American National Election Survey found that for both men and women, racism and sexism were stronger predictors of Trump support than even party affiliation. A University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that racism and sexism accounted for two-thirds of his 19-point support gap between whites with and without college degrees and was far more important than economic dissatisfaction, even controlling for party and ideology.
Using a large nationally representative panel (the gold standard of observational causal inference), the University of Pennsylvania concluded that while financial wellbeing didn’t influence voters who switched from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, perceived threats to white Americans’ social status from their declining majority and African Americans’ rising status combined with insecurity about America’s global economic dominance overwhelmingly explained their support. Similarly, a pre-election study found telling voters with “strong white identity” that nonwhites will outnumber whites by 2042 made them more likely to support Trump.
Finally, of interest to this audience, the University of Chicago found that among white millennials (41% of whom voted for Trump), those who scored high on “white vulnerability” were 74% more likely to support Trump, controlling for partisanship, ideology, living in the South, gender, racial resentment and employment—the strongest predictor with such controls. Scores were based on answers to whether whites were “economically losing ground through no fault of their own,” whether discrimination against whites was “as big a problem as that against Blacks and other minorities” and whether minorities numerically overtaking whites by 2050 would “strengthen or weaken the country.”
Why does this matter and what should we do about it? None of us, least of all myself, are free of prejudice, conceit and vice of one form or another (just ask The Review’s copy editors). Moreover, research shows it is possible to change people’s racial and gender biases through empathetic dialogue that doesn’t condone their bigotry—but NOT if you call them racist. Nevertheless, when millions of people make a clear statement of belief, you do them injustice to substitute their views with those you find more palatable.
Max Grozovsky is a junior economics student at the university. All views are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.