Are Perceptions of Anti-White Bias Increasing?

Anti-White Bias

“Is Anti-White Bias a Problem?” asked the 2011 Room for Debate section of the New York Times. The key piece was Jockeying for Stigma, by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers, which purported to be new research on the matter.

Norton and Sommers said they had discovered something new: “Many whites now believe that it’s anti-white bias that’s on an upswing, to the point where it’s even more prevalent than anti-black bias–a sentiment not shared by blacks. Why would the perception of anti-white bias have increased dramatically among whites, particularly in recent years?”

To support this assertion, they displayed a graph titled “White and black respondents’ perceptions of anti-white and anti-black bias in each decade.” Sure enough, it seemed to show how “Whites rating anti-white bias” had steadily risen, crossing above the line of “Whites rating anti-black bias” in the 2000s.

Perceptions of Historical Data versus Historical Data

But how did they get this historical data? Answer: they don’t have historical data! The chart is deceptive. What they have is a survey from 2011, asking people “to indicate the extent to which they felt both Blacks and Whites were the target of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s” (Norton and Sommers 2011:216). And, of course, whites today say anti-black bias was a problem in the 1950s but drops steadily, whereas anti-white bias is steadily on the rise. Blacks today say the same thing, although not to the same extent.

But none of this says anything about what people in each decade actually thought! All it does is support the dominant American mythology. Americans believe racism was a problem back in the 1950s, but it’s going away or gone now.

Contrast this with some real historical polling data, such as that cited by Tim Wise in Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama:

In 1963, roughly two-thirds of whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally in white communities. Even more along the lines of delusion, in 1962, nearly 90 percent of whites said black children were treated equally in terms of educational opportunity. All of which is to say that in August 1963, as 200,000 people marched on Washington, and as they stood there in the sweltering heat, listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, most whites seeing the news that evening were, in effect, thinking to themselves, what’s the problem, exactly? Dream? Why dream? Everything is just fine now. Isn’t it? (2009:33)

That is to say if Norton and Sommers would have done their study in any other decade, they probably would have encountered similar results. Whites perceive bias as a problem of 30-50 years ago, steadily swinging in the other direction.

Anti-White Bias & Contemporary Politics

Norton and Sommers say their results help us understand contemporary politics:

Many whites now use their sense of marginalization as a rallying cry toward action. Already, this sentiment is affecting political discourse, as shown by the rise of the Tea Party and the growing number of lawsuits alleging “reverse racism.” In an era in which all groups, even the historically empowered majority, see themselves as disadvantaged, politicians and policymakers must accept the reality that deciding from which direction to fight the problem of discrimination is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

These observations may be true, but it is hardly news or a new reality. Their piece basically connects two themes I already discussed on this blog. First, in Race Remixed? that structural racism is still very much in force. Second, in Anthropology, Ambushed, how conservative groups enjoy playing the role of oppressed minority. I was not trying to break new ground; I was just reporting on things anthropology has known for years.

Chris Rock did a better version of the Norton and Sommers research back in 1999 for Bigger and Blacker. Unlike Norton and Sommers, Rock is both historically accurate and hilarious. Rock diagnoses who are the angriest people: white people, who say they are “losing the country.” Then Rock asks, “if you’re losing, who’s winning? . . . There ain’t a white person in this room who’d trade places with me–and I’m rich!” I show the “Racism” segment of Bigger and Blacker in my Introduction to Anthropology classes. It’s the best illustration of both white privilege and an antidote to the charges of “reverse racism.”

Several of the commenters in “Room for Debate” mention they are not surprised by this study. Some even say it is not new or newsworthy. However, no official commenter challenges the deceptive presentation of the study. Anthropology must do the real empirical work and figure out its importance.

Updates on Anti-White Bias

2013: In the wake of Trayvon Martin there were renewed calls for a national conversation on race, such as How Not to Derail the Dialogue on Race. Although in 2011 I took this perceptions of anti-white bias study to task for the completely unfounded claim of change over time, the study certainly did reveal that many white people live in a delusional world in which they perceive anti-white bias to be a bigger problem than anti-black bias. Under those conditions, of what use opening a national conversation on race? See White-Race Problems: White Hispanic, White Black, Geraldo Rivera for the 2013 update.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Are Perceptions of Anti-White Bias Increasing?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 23 May 2011. Revised 7 September 2017.

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