An October 2017 poll conducted by teams from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s School of Public Health showed that a majority of white people (around 55 percent) believe there is anti-white discrimination in America. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute in collaboration with MTV zeroes in on this question with young people, specifically those aged 15 to 24.
Among young white men and women, 36 percent say so-called reverse discrimination is as serious a problem in America today as discrimination against minority groups. But when broken down by gender, white men are significantly more likely to believe in reverse discrimination — 43 percent of men as opposed to only 29 percent of women. The idea of racism against whites being as serious a problem as discrimination against groups such as black Americans — who still face significant hurdles in employment, housing, and criminal justice, to name a few — doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny.
In the past, this question of anti-white discrimination would be a fringe issue. Unfortunately, it has taken on new salience in the Trump era with the emergence of the alt-right.
Therefore, it’s worth asking: What’s up with white men?
One answer is denial. The idea of America is built on an ethos of exceptionalism. In a lot of ways, this view is warranted. All men being created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights was, in 1776, the most radically liberal statement of political theory ever at that point in history. While most of us will admit that America failed to live up to this creed — slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, housing discrimination, and employment discrimination come to mind — many white Americans are also unable to admit that we still live with the legacy of those failings today. “Denial is how America defends itself,” writes Ibram Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, in the New York Times.
America is billed as a land of opportunity, where hard work allows you to get ahead in life. Many white people are unable to even consider the possibility that continuing racial disparities are anything but the result of pathologies within the black community.
This denial of America’s often harmful policy history dovetails with a belief many white Americans have long held: Increased diversity harms them. According to PRRI’s study, 48 percent of young white men believe that increased diversity will disadvantage them. This is not a new idea, but given all of the strides African-Americans and other minorities have made over the last 50 years with no empirically significant repercussions for whites, it’s safe to say it’s unfounded.
Certainly, not every person who believes reverse discrimination is a serious problem is a white supremacist. But the combination of Trump’s race-whistling presidential campaign, the coming out of the alt-right, and the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer that left a woman dead give this issue of white supremacy and radicalization a new sense of relevance. What could cause members of the most privileged group of people in modern history (white Americans of European ancestry) to believe they’re under attack?
Harvard professor Steven Pinker believes that part of the answer is political correctness on campuses. When admittedly controversial topics are considered undiscussable, nuance is jettisoned and people gravitate towards provocative and politically incorrect conclusions (which are also regularly incorrect), as students feel they are being called to task for crimes they didn’t commit. This is exacerbated by hysterical right-wing media portraying college campuses as cesspools of godless, left-wing indoctrination.
There is certainly no single explanation for alt-right radicalization, but as Vox’s German Lopez writes, “a common thread among people who are radicalized is a lack of purpose in life.” This alludes to the research of political scientist Robert Putnam and others, whose work has shown the ways in which civic organizations, family life, and social trust in white America have broken down over the last several decades. Putnam’s famous example is bowling leagues: In absolute numbers, more people are bowling, but they are doing it alone. Fewer are bowling in leagues with friends and colleagues.
Civil society’s disappearance has been accompanied, understandably, by rising anti-social attitudes amongst younger citizens — people under 30 are more likely than their elders to believe things like taking a bribe or claiming state benefits they aren’t entitled to is justifiable. Young white men who are drawn to the alt-right have grown up in an era of increasing social isolation, devoid of strong intermediate institutions such as churches, service groups, recreational associations, and other organizations that can help guide one’s life in meaningful ways and nurture the art of association in pluralistic, multiracial societies.
Many commentators on the Right are critical of what they see as an inculcation of victimhood status among minority groups who seek recognition of past injustices. They argue these groups should stop blaming others, and focus on fixing problems within their own communities. But in many rural parts of the country, white mortality rates are rising due to the opioid epidemic, families have broken down, and more and more white people feel they suffer from discrimination and marginalization. Yet, you won’t see very much commentary on the failure of the white community. Isn’t that white privilege?
Jerrod A. Laber is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a writer living in northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate, and was a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation.
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