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Opinion Why racism is bad for White people

People light candles at a makeshift memorial near Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo on May 15. (Usman Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Racism is bad for all of us, White people included.

Racism is immoral and has, again and again, led to deadly violence toward our fellow human beings. It is also a dysfunctional force in our polity. It has been used to divide those who should be allies. It casts politics as a zero-sum struggle. It blocks us from seizing shared opportunities. Racism advantages demagoguery over thoughtfulness and hostility over empathy.

In response to the killing of 10 Black Americans in Buffalo by a gunman committed to the madness of the “great replacement” theory, President Biden rightly condemned “white supremacy” as “a poison … running through our body politic.” He offered the bracing, old-fashioned argument that racism is wrong because “we’re all children of God.”

Advocates of the replacement conspiracy have ignored this truth in the past when they invoked the theory against not only Black Americans but also White immigrants — Irish, Italian, Jewish, Greek and so many others — out of fear that they would undermine the country’s “Anglo-Saxon” majority.

“The people who today think of themselves as regular Americans, people with surnames like Stefanik, Gaetz or Anton,” conservative writer Bret Stephens argued in a powerful New York Times column, “would, on account of their faith or ethnicity, have been seen by previous generations of nativists as uncouth and unassimilable, dirty and disloyal.”

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Stephens’s observation points to why we must battle laws aimed at making teachers skittish about offering an accurate version of our country’s complicated story. It’s a tale of exclusion and inclusion; racism and the struggle against it; efforts to deny liberty to some of our fellow citizens and a determination to extend it widely.

Perhaps because the term is thrown around so freely, I’d insist that those who condemn racism should not be accused of “virtue signaling.” I’m not fond of the phrase because, in principle, advancing virtue is an absolute necessity in a democratic republic. The idea that free societies depend on public and private virtue is no less true for being ancient — and condemning racism is always the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, the popular meaning of the term speaks to an understandable impatience with those who appear to be casting themselves as morally superior and flaunting a more elevated consciousness.

Those who would defeat racism need to promote the urgency of solidarity across racial lines without conveying self-satisfied arrogance. In particular, othering White working-class Americans as an undifferentiated mass of unenlightened souls is about the worst strategy imaginable for promoting greater harmony.

Perhaps because of where I was raised — as a middle-class kid in a White working-class town who had the good fortune to get a great education — I am especially bothered when educated elites look down their noses at the people I grew up with.

White working-class racism exists and needs to be confronted. But as a moral matter, White working-class grievances created by economic injustice deserve a response. As a practical matter, the imperatives of coalition politics in a diverse nation require advocates of equal rights and social justice to build alliances across the lines of race that include all Americans facing forms of marginalization.

This is why I appreciated Heather McGhee’s argument in her important book “The Sum of Us,” summarized in its subtitle: “What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” Zero-sum thinking, she wrote, “has always optimally benefited only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole.”

As McGhee told Vox’s Sean Illing, “The zero-sum story is the idea that there’s this massive dividing line between Black people and white people, that they’re on opposite teams, and that progress for people of color has to come at white people’s expense.”

Fighting this idea is central to overcoming racism. The possibility of shared advancement helps explain the finding of political scientists Paul Frymer and Jacob M. Grumbach that “white union members have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans.”

Unions, they note, need to recruit diverse memberships and are in the business of selling and realizing the idea that workers, no matter their backgrounds, can move forward together. It’s no accident that provoking ethnic and racial division has long been an instrument in the toolbox of union busting.

In his 2015 eulogy in Charleston, S.C., for nine people slain in another racist massacre, President Barack Obama urged us to view history as “a manual for how to avoid the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.” As McGhee demonstrates, one lesson from our past is that racism has always been an impediment to the nation’s progress. Breaking its hold is in the interest of every American.

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