It is not by chance that most of the individuals who descended on the nation’s capital were white, nor is it an accident that they align with the Republican Party and this president. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that symbols of white racism, including the Confederate flag, were present and prominently displayed. Rather, years of research make clear that what we witnessed in Washington, D.C., is the violent outgrowth of a belief system that argues that white Americans and leaders who assuage whiteness should have an unlimited hold on the levers of power in this country. And this, unfortunately, is what we should expect from those whose white identity is threatened by an increasingly diverse citizenry.
Let’s start here: Scholars interested in the sociological underpinnings of white racism often call our attention to concerns about group status as starting places for understanding white Americans’ attitudes toward members of other social groups. In a famous essay from 1958 on the topic, entitled “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position,” Herbert Blumer, a noted sociologist, wrote the following:
There are four basic types of feeling that seem to be always present in race prejudice in the dominant group. They are (1) a feeling of superiority, (2) a feeling that the subordinate race is intrinsically different and alien, (3) a feeling of proprietary claim to certain areas of privilege and advantage, and (4) a fear and suspicion that the subordinate race harbors designs on the prerogatives of the dominant race.
Building on Blumer’s early work, other scholars have highlighted the consequences that result when white Americans perceive threats to their dominant position in the social hierarchy. Some research by social psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, finds that reminding white Americans of changing racial demographics causes them to adopt more negative racial attitudes toward minority groups. These same researchers also find that these reminders lead politically unaffiliated white Americans to report a stronger attachment to the Republican Party and to express greater political conservatism. These findings make sense, as the GOP is widely perceived to be a party that caters to white interests, a perception that predates the election of Trump but that has undoubtedly been strengthened by his ascendance to power in the party. In her award-winning book, “White Identity Politics,” Ashley Jardina goes further than any scholar to-date in documenting the causes and consequences of white identity, arguing that the increased salience of whiteness as a social category corresponds largely with how demographics have changed in this country. Jardina finds in her research that this, in turn, has created a fear among some white Americans that their hold on power has become increasingly precarious, highlighted most sharply by the ascendance of Barack Obama, a Black man, to the White House. [Continue reading…]