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Belief in Reverse Discrimination Bolsters Whites' Self-Esteem

That's the finding of new research, which delves into the psychology of racial polarization.
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(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Whites in America are being discriminated against. To victims of actual racism, that's a laughable assertion, but it's widely accepted among sizable segments of the population.

In a survey taken last year, half of white Americans—and 60 percent of white working-class Americans—expressed the belief that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities. (One can only guess at the percentage of Donald Trump voters who hold that opinion, but it's no doubt huge.)

Newly published research traces the roots of this belief it to a deep-seated psychological need. It finds that, for many whites, progress toward a more equal, multi-racial society decreases feeling of their own self-worth.

"When experiencing threat due to racial progress, whites might be motivated to perceive racial bias because the more they do, the better they feel about themselves," writes a research team led by Wesleyan University psychologist Clara Wilkins.

"Changes to the racial status quo are threatening to whites, and perceiving greater racial bias is a way to manage the threat."

In the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Wilkins and her colleagues describe two studies that provide evidence of this dynamic. They use the relative size of one's signature as an indicator of self-esteem.

In the first study, the participants—81 whites at the University of Washington—began by signing a consent form, as well as an "application for a merit-based cash award of $10." They were then randomly assigned to read one of two articles: one that "described racial minorities' social advancement in the U.S.," or another that focused on an underdog swimming team.

Half of white Americans expressed the belief that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

After answering a series of questions assessing how well they understood and remembered the articles, they again signed their name on a "study completion form." Researchers found that the size of the signatures decreased for those who read about racial progress, but not for those who read the unrelated article.

In the second study, 77 white Wesleyan University students similarly began by signing a consent form. They then "graphed changes to student racial demographics in their university."

Half of them used statistics "indicating that the proportion of students of color at their university was higher than projected in analyses conducted several decades earlier." The others used numbers indicating the percentage, while increasing, was falling below the level of previous predictions.

After doing so, "participants were informed that they had not been selected for the award. They then signed a release form," providing the researchers with a second signature, and were given information on the person who did win the prize. The packet included a photo revealing that the winner was African American.

Finally, each participant completed a questionnaire "in which they indicated why they believed the competitor was chosen instead of them." They then provided one last signature.

There were no significant changes in the size of the three signatures provided by participants who had made the chart showing racial progress had slowed. But among those who made the chart showing minority representation on campus was growing at a faster-than-expected clip, there was a definite pattern.

The size of their signatures shrunk after they made the chart, and then grew—essentially returning to baseline levels—after they provided reasons why the black student got the award over them. Importantly, "those who made greater racial attributions"—that is, expressed the belief that their competitor benefited from affirmative action or anti-white bias—"experienced greater increases in self-worth."

This suggests that, for whites who believe the racial make-up of their community is rapidly changing, "attributing a negative outcome to racial discrimination is self-protective," the researchers write.

"This reaction is consistent with our argument that racial progress threatens the status hierarchy and thus, whites—who traditionally occupy dominant positions in society," Wilkins and her colleagues conclude. "Participants (who saw evidence of) high racial progress experienced greater self-worth protection to the extent to which they attributed their loss to race."

This sort of deep-seated reaction will be difficult to counteract. There is evidence that self-affirmations can restore lost self-worth, but, as the researchers note, "other strategies that are easier to implement on a large scale are needed," particularly as the nation moves closer and closer to minority-majority status.

It has long been suggested that the intense opposition to President Barack Obama, and support for Trump, are based not on their policies, but rather on the deep emotions each man stirs. This study pinpoints threatened self-esteem as a driver of these emotions among many white Americans.

Obama's election symbolizes the fact that the traditional hierarchy, in which whites enjoyed certain advantages simply because of their skin color, has been upended. For many whites, that hits home on a deep and painful level, prompting them to adopt beliefs that further widen the racial divide.

As always, the political is personal.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.