How do Americans think about the role of race in our country’s daily life? News reports, social media and uncomfortable dinner conversations often point to one conclusion: They disagree. Many white Americans believe that the United States has entered a post-racial phase; many black Americans believe that race is as salient an issue as ever.
Recent polling identifies one area, though, where black and white Americans show remarkable convergence: They believe that race relations have gotten worse. Asked in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this past week whether race relations in the United States are generally good or generally bad, 72 percent of black respondents said “bad.” So did 63 percent of whites. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll had similar results.
But this purported agreement obscures the fact that black and white Americans see issues related to race very differently. Just one week after the widely publicized fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota — and days after a gunman killed five police officers in Dallas — 75 percent of blacks surveyed by the Times and CBS reported thinking that police are more likely to use deadly force against a black civilian than a white civilian. Only 36 percent of whites agreed.
Our recent research suggests yet another way black and white Americans see race differently: Whites now think bias against white people is more of a problem than bias against black people.
We asked 417 black and white respondents to assess how big a problem anti-black bias was in America in each decade from the 1950s to the present. We then asked them the same questions about anti-white bias — the extent to which they felt that racism against whites has changed since the 1950s.
Black and white Americans both thought anti-black bias had decreased over the decades. Whites saw that decline as steeper and more dramatic than blacks did, but the general impressions of the trend were similar for both races.
When asked about anti-white bias, though, black and white respondents differed significantly in their views. Black respondents identified virtually no anti-white bias in any decade. White respondents agreed that anti-white bias was not a problem in the 1950s, but reported that bias against whites started climbing in the 1960s and 1970s before rising sharply in the past 30 years.
When asked about the present-day United States, a striking difference emerged. Our average white respondent believed that at the time of our survey in 2011, anti-white bias was an even bigger problem than anti-black bias.
This perception is fascinating, as it stands in stark contrast to data on almost any outcome that has been assessed. From life expectancy to school discipline to mortgage rejection to police use of force, outcomes for white Americans tend to be — in the aggregate — better than outcomes for black Americans, often substantially so. (While a disturbing uptick in the mortality rate among middle-aged whites has received a great deal of recent media attention, it is worth noting that even after this increase, the rate remains considerably lower than that of blacks.)
Reports on our research have occasionally prompted bizarre emails and phone calls of thanks from individuals grateful for our shining a light on anti-white bias — messages that we have always been surprised to receive, given the actual nature of our data. (A sample message: “The purpose of my email is to acknowledge the facts surrounding your recent findings. I am in agreement with the research because i personally have experienced racism and bigotry toward myself as a white person and i have been a target of racism and bigotry myself.”) Our findings do not indicate a verifiable surge in anti-whiteness in recent years or identify a new victimization of white Americans. Rather, our research reveals a heightened perception among whites that they are increasingly the primary victims of bias in America — a perception that statistics say is wrong.
But in the years since our study, whites’ identification with victim status — a view of themselves as the most persecuted group — has become even more apparent. Look at the reports about white nationalist groups that support the presidential run of Donald Trump, a candidate who has pledged to “make America great again” — presumably a reference to earlier eras when white Americans believe they were not yet targets of discrimination. This perceived victimhood may also undergird the bristling response of those who counter Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality by asserting vocally that “all lives matter,” as though acknowledgment of the travails of one segment of society necessarily leaves less sympathy for the others.
Our research also suggests that among whites, there’s a lingering view that the American Dream is a “fixed pie,” such that the advancement of one group of citizens must come at the expense of all the other groups. Whites told us they see things as a zero-sum game: Any improvements for black Americans, they believe, are likely to come at a direct cost to whites. Black respondents in our surveys, meanwhile, report believing that outcomes for blacks can improve without affecting outcomes for white Americans.
Such discrepancies are not new. A decade ago, psychologist Richard Eibach and colleagues demonstrated that one source of divergent perceptions of racial progress is that black and white Americans tend to focus on different reference points. Black Americans typically see less progress toward racial equality because they compare the present day with an ideal, yet unrealized society. White Americans perceive more progress because they compare the present with the past.
What is the basis for the persistence of beliefs about anti-white bias? For some whites, the changing — and increasingly less white — demographics of the United States may feel existentially threatening. Indeed, research points to people’s pervasive fear that they will end up on the bottom of the status pile — a fear called “last place aversion.” That may further increase opposition to the gains of other groups: If “they” are moving up in the world, “we” must be moving down. Such fears might be particularly pronounced for a group, like white Americans, that has always been at the top of the racial hierarchy and therefore has the furthest to fall.
Black and white Americans may agree that race relations are approaching a new nadir, but this is just about the only race-related issue on which they see eye to eye. Major fault lines run through that apparent common ground. In calls to end anti-black racism, some see an effort to allow everyone to pursue the American Dream. But others see a threat and a reason to resist.