I'm trying to come up with some handy replies to the white people I sometimes encounter who feel that whites have been getting an increasingly raw deal. These are the people who, when you get right down to it with them about the subject of "race," express worries that further advances for people of color (especially for black people) will come at the expense of white people like themselves. They see relative racial (white) advantage and (non-white) disadvantage as a zero-sum game, and as a game that whites have been losing for decades, in large part because non-whites have (supposedly) been gaining.
In a post at Working-Class Perspectives about the racial composition of the Tea-Party activists ("Tea-partying while White"), Jack Metzgar says the following on this topic.
What would you say to people like this relative of his, "Helen"?
At a recent extended family gathering a relative of mine asked me, “So what do you think of your President now?” I indicated my firm support, briefly explaining why I thought health care reform was really important and good, and then asked for her opinion. “I don’t know enough [about policies] to say, but he just scares me.” I asked why, expecting something about the deficit or “big government,” but she said, “I don’t know why. He just scares me.” I tried to probe for specific reasons, but she reported that she wasn’t sure and didn’t “want to talk politics.”
I teach my students in undergraduate critical-thinking courses that it is not legitimate to attribute negative motives to people unless you can credibly explain how these motives are related to what the person actually says. This is a particularly important principle, I say, if you disagree with someone – and even more important if you strongly disagree. By that standard, it would be wrong to charge Helen with “racial prejudice,” let alone “racism,” but in the absence of specific reasons to be scared of Barack Obama, it’s also hard to imagine that her fear does not have something to do with his being a black man.
Helen (not her real name) is a white senior-citizen widow living almost entirely on Social Security in a modest one-story house that she owns outright. She never attended college and worked as a clerical worker after she helped raise her three children as a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, who also had no college, was a front-line supervisor in a steel mill now long gone. Later in another fleeting conversation she expressed interest in and sympathy for the Tea Party.
I’ve known Helen most of my life, and I have never heard her use explicitly racist language or express anything but a kind of paternalistic sympathy for the plight of African Americans, with whom she has had almost no experience. There are many nonracial reasons why she would not and did not vote for President Obama. She is a life-long Republican, a small-town Protestant, and in her early ‘70s, somebody who is rooted in a more traditional set of gender roles and family arrangements that Democrats seem dismissive of. But she also lives in an atmosphere that is common among the white working class as I’ve experienced it -- an atmosphere infused with a free-floating anxiety that any gains for black people will come at some loss to white folks like her.
This atmosphere is not specific to working-class whites, but my guess is the anxiety is more intense for the working class than among more securely affluent whites. It is this anxious atmosphere of a racial zero-sum game that I suspect informs many of the “supporters” and “sympathizers” of the Tea Party movement, not the boldly explicit racism of the 10% who have told pollsters [PDF] that “racial prejudice against Barack Obama” is one reason for their support of the movement. . . .
[the rest of Metzgar's post is here]
Metzgar's post is useful for delineating the kinds of racism that exist among the various sorts of white people who comprise almost the entirety of the Tea Party "movement." And again, he raises for me a more specific question, about how to answer the common claims and fears expressed by white people like his relative, "Helen."
For one thing, the implications of the little that Helen had to say about race counter what she probably professes to believe. People like her probably believe that racism is a bad thing that should be denounced whenever and wherever possible. But then, if gains for people of color are costing white people, Helen and white people like her are against such gains. And so, if racism accounts for non-white losses that are made up for by such gains, then Helen and white people like her are ultimately in favor of racism when they worry about or fear such gains.
Privilege only works when someone else doesn't have it, and white privilege is no different.
But then, does it really follow that whatever gains people of color make must come at the expense of white people?
Of course, it's certainly not the case that people of color are now generally doing better than white people. White people do still benefit from racism, in both material and psychological ways, so when various forms of racism decline, such white benefits also decline. When loan officers, for instance, extend more loans at equitable rates to the people of color from whom they'd formerly been inclined to withhold loans and equitable rates, getting such loans and rates is more difficult for white people than it was for them before. And when hiring practices become more racially equitable, de facto "white networks" don't work as well as they did before, making it more difficult for white people to get jobs than it was for them before.
But then, just because white people have had it easier than people of color in such ways, and in so many other ways, doesn't mean that advantages that "just happen to be white" are right, or ethical, or just. So when white advantages recede and non-white chances move closer to even, the white people who complain about that mostly do so, I think, because they're not seeing and understanding white privilege. They're also not seeing the racism that resulted in that privilege, and still results in it; they seem to believe that the racial playing field is already level. If that's true, then when non-whites gain and whites seem to lose as a result, those whites who complain about that don't do so because they realize that their racial group is losing ill-gotten gains. They instead complain because they think they're being cheated.
I think I'm just scratching the surface here of the many causes of this common white tendency -- the resentful and fearful belief that gains for non-white people come at the expense of white people. It's complicated, in part because while some gains for people of color actually do come at the expense of white people, others do not. And again, many (all?) of the gains that white people lose when non-white people gain have been illegitimate gains in the first place.
So what would you say to white people -- who do see their generation generally faring worse than previous ones in economic terms -- when they admit to such ultimately racist suspicions or convictions, that improving the lot of non-white people will (and has) unfairly cost white people like themselves? Where would you even start?
Finally, do you know of any good writings or other sources on this matter?