Citing a study by Northwestern University psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, Jamelle Bouie frets that white Americans will react to their future minority status with ever-more conservative leanings and angst, perhaps making the country’s future electorate as racially polarized as Mississippi’s electorate is today. Here’s what the study found:
Using a nationally representative survey of self-identified politically “independent” whites, Craig and Richeson conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked respondents about the racial shift in California—if they had heard the state had become majority-minority. What they found was a significant shift toward Republican identification, which increased for those who lived closest to the West Coast.
In the second experiment, they focused on the overall U.S. shift with census projections of the national population. Again, they found that white Americans became more conservative—and more likely to endorse conservative policies—when they were aware of demographic changes that put them in the minority.
The final experiment—where questions were further refined and targeted—saw similar results. As Craig and Richeson write, “Perceived group-status threat, triggered by exposure to majority-minority shift, increases Whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions.”
I’m not sure why the study was limited to self-identified white independents. If you want to know how white people will react to future events, you ought to ask white people, not some arbitrary subset of white people. But, Bouie must see a rightward drift of white independents as an ominous sign in itself, since that would tend to increase the racial polarization within the two-party system.
By coincidence, this morning I read an excerpt from Stony Brook University Prof. Michael Kimmel’s book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (reviewed here). This particular excerpt focused on the Aryan Nation and white supremacists, but the book looks at angry white men in general. What he found was a strong correlation between white men failing to inherit any significant wealth or to achieve a status commensurate to their father’s, and a sense that white people are getting a raw deal. In the following passage, Prof. Kimmel actually seems to conflate the Republican base with white supremacists, but that’s because he sees both as points on a continuum, distinguishable only by the degree to which their discomfort and anger has caused them to hate.
That such ardent patriots are so passionately antigovernment might strike the observer as contradictory. After all, are these not the same men who served their country in Vietnam or in the Gulf War? Are these not the same men who believe so passionately in the American Dream? Are they not the backbone of the Reagan Revolution? Indeed, they are. The extreme Right faces the difficult cognitive task of maintaining their faith in America and in capitalism and simultaneously providing an analysis of an indifferent state, at best, or an actively interventionist one, at worst, and a way to embrace capitalism, despite a cynical corporate logic that leaves them, often literally, out in the cold—homeless, jobless, hopeless.
Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright—as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces—the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families—all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”
Maybe in a parliamentary system we would have some kind of ultranationalist party that could serve as steam-vent for this kind of anxiety, but in our two-party system it is inevitable that the more conservative party will take on a significant part of it. It’s this anxiety that explains why the Republicans cannot pass immigration reform even though they have constituencies (the evangelicals, the agricultural industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street) clamoring for it. They have actually been captured by this racial anxiety and now are held hostage to it.
What’s also interesting is that so much of this has little to do with policy preferences and how much it is mixed up in simple racial identity. These folks don’t like Wall Street or big corporations. Huge numbers of them benefit directly from federal aid and subsidies, including from ObamaCare, welfare, and food stamps. Given that, I wonder how their opinions might shift if confronted with a Democratic Party led by Hillary Clinton (with her family’s Bubba factor) rather than Barack Obama. Certainly, they would not find her so immediately alienating, which is not to say that the far right didn’t freak-out for the eight years of the Clinton presidency, because they did.
In any case, I am less concerned about the future than Bouie is. Whites are changing in more ways than one. Here in Chester County, Pennsylvania, there were areas where it was possible for a white child to go to school in the 1970’s and never encounter a person of color. Today, in my child’s pre-school, almost half the kids are non-white. The next generation of white kids isn’t going to have the same expectations or experiences, and so the racial diversity of the country will have less potential to disappoint and traumatize them.