How White Identity Shapes American Politics

Political scientist Ashley Jardina reports that up to 40 percent of American whites feel solidarity with, and protective of, their racial group.
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A man wears a Make America Great Again hat during the Unite the Right rally on August 12th, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A man wears a Make America Great Again hat during the Unite the Right rally on August 12th, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

President Donald Trump's supporters tend to get angry when they're accused of racism. To many liberals, their outrage is laughable: After all, they support a leader whose racist impulses are increasingly difficult to deny.

In fact, though, there's an excellent chance that many of those supporters aren't technically racist, in that they don't reflexively hate minorities or consider them inherently inferior. Still, for many of these voters, being white is a central component of their personal identity, and they are invested in maintaining their race's status at the top of the national hierarchy.

For some on the left, this is a distinction without a difference. But Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina argues that this protect-our-own mindset is associated with a different set of assumptions and behaviors than pure prejudice.

"Dislike for people who aren't like you, and the desire to protect your own group's dominant status, are both problematic," says the author of the new book White Identity Politics. "They just have different psychological underpinnings."

Jardina's work clarifies how Americans actually think about race, and how their fears and desires shape our politics. She described her findings and their implications in a conversation with Pacific Standard.

Ideas Page Break

How do you distinguish white racial identity from white racism?

Racial prejudice is about people who aren't part of your racial group. White nationalism is having a feeling of solidarity with, and favoritism toward, one's racial group. It's more positive, protective feelings for people who are more like you, in terms of racial identification.

Now, even though people who are high in white identity don't necessarily hold negative individual-level attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities, they want to protect white privileges and dominance. That means they are doing so at the expense of other racial and ethnic groups.

Ashley Jardina.

Ashley Jardina.

Are the consequences of the two mindsets basically identical?

Sometimes. But these two forces are manifesting among different sets of white people. The overlap isn't as significant as you might think. There are a lot of white people who are high on standard measures of racial prejudice who don't feel a strong attachment to their racial group, and there are a lot of people who feel a strong attachment to their racial group who don't score especially high on racial prejudice. People who are really high on both are the white nationalists and white supremacists.

Do some white people think of themselves as not anti-black, but pro-white?

That's a distinction people certainly make in their minds. Most whites understand that they are afforded certain privileges—but they believe they have a right to them, and they don't want to give them up. At the moment, they feel their privileges are under attack, [so] they begin to use the language racial and ethnic minorities have used, describing themselves as being under attack and victims of discrimination.

Let's talk about the size of this population. You write that 30 to 40 percent of American whites feel a strong sense of racial identity, and 20 percent—close to half of that group—feels discontent over the perceived declining status of whites. How did you arrive at those figures?

They are mostly based on nationally representative surveys, including the American National Elections Study. In my own research, I have been asking people since 2010, "How important is being white to your identity?" That's where I get the 30 to 40 percent figure. The 20 percent has an explicit belief that their group should organize politically to change laws and policies they consider unfair.

That's the Trump base?

Absolutely. But this certainly predated Trump. When [Barack] Obama was elected, a lot of whites felt their power and status was waning to some extent. A lot of commentators on the right were breathing life into these concerns. Rush Limbaugh said at the time that whites were becoming an oppressed minority.

How does being white become a primary source of a person's identity?

White identity isn't a constant force in American politics. It's a force that arises when whites feel their status is being challenged. We see it today; we saw it back during the civil rights movement [in the 1960s]. And we saw it in the 1920s. The conversations politicians were having about immigration [in the 1920s] were so similar to those we're having today. You had members of Congress saying we had to preserve the United States as "a white nation."

White Identity Politics.

White Identity Politics.

The argument I make in the book is that part of the reason white identity didn't matter a lot in the 1980s or '90s is we had yet to see the current patterns of major demographic change due to immigration. We had yet to elect the first black president. We were far away from the civil rights movement at that point. It was a lull when white dominance wasn't really challenged.

Who are the people today who fall into this category—particularly the 20 percent who are aggrieved over their perceived decline in status?

A lot of people have the impression that it is working-class men, but that's not what I found. People who score high on white identity look a lot like other white people. They tend to own homes. They are not hurting economically. They're not necessarily in blue-collar jobs.

They are, disproportionately, people who didn't go to college. Lower levels of education are associated with higher levels of white identity. There is some association with living in a rural area with white identity, but it's not especially strong.

Do you expect the percentage of whites with these beliefs to increase as whites approach minority status in the U.S.?

For most of the time period I have looked at, I don't see an increase in white identity. What differs is the extent to which it matters. One [determining] factor is how salient it is. Is the media talking about it? Are people around you talking about it?

So it's not the case that more members of the population are adopting this. Instead, its impact has increased.

Does the notion of a wall on the Mexican border have strong symbolic power for people who score high in white identity?

Absolutely. People who are high in white identity are significantly opposed to immigration. Again, it's not necessarily rooted in dislike for people from Central America. It's the idea that these people are changing the culture and "replacing" the white population. Some whites are really troubled by this. Their attitude is, "I want to build a wall because, without it, the country as I know it is going to change so that it does not reflect people like me."

Let's apply these insights to practical politics. Can Democrats attract some of these voters who are not, strictly speaking, racist?

Absolutely. For many reasons, it's going to be hard to move people away from the Trump camp. But he has alienated a lot of his base, and may continue to do so.

When campaigning for president, Trump did all the right things to appeal to white identity politics. He appealed to anti-immigration sentiment while promising to make our country more isolationist, and to protect the entitlements white people think of as their own: Social Security and Medicare.

So he may have left Democrats an opening when he proposed big Medicare cuts in his latest budget.

It's possible. But another factor is that Trump has managed to make immigration a central topic for many of these white voters. In some ways, that's just political theater. The number of immigrants coming to the U.S. has declined over the years. But he's good at ratcheting up immigration as an issue. As soon as he does this, he gets a particular segment of his base motivated.

You write that, in the long run, we're never going to get past these racial tensions unless we dismantle our racial hierarchy. How might that be accomplished?

It'll be hard. The way that we've done this in the past has just reinforced the racial hierarchy. The Irish and Italian immigrants [of the early 20th century] were eventually accepted as white, but that allowed us to retain a system where the whites are at the top and African Americans are at the bottom. Eventually, we may see most Latinos as white, but that too would likely just recreate the racial hierarchy.

I do think we've made a lot of strides over the past 60 or 70 years toward making our country more racially egalitarian. These policies make it harder for our natural proclivity toward groupism and identity politics to affect our political and economic systems. We have a long way to go—there is still enormous racial discrimination—but we've certainly made progress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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