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How White Victimhood Fuels Republican Politics

On Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, was elected the first Black president of the United States. His election was seen as a hopeful moment in America and ushered in lots of think pieces and reporting that his presidency was the start of a new “post-racial” society. At long last — in the eyes of many, at least — there was hope that the racial wounds that have long divided Black and white Americans would heal.

That, of course, never happened. Even at the time, certain white voters refused to vote for Obama because of his race, and a rise in hate crimes followed his win. Moreover, in the lead up to Obama’s first election, some polls showed that only about one-third of white Americans (38 percent) thought Obama would help race relations, compared with 60 percent of Black Americans. Moreover, a plurality of white Americans thought (or, perhaps, hoped) that his candidacy would have no impact on race relations, essentially upholding the status quo. What’s more, some white voters during this period started to become resentful of a Black man ascending to the highest political office. And that backlash, in part, spurred the election of former President Donald Trump eight years later.

Trump’s election killed any illusions anyone might have had about a “post-racial” America. Indeed, Trump was successful in finding a predominately white audience who lapped up his overt racism toward people of color and who were eager to embrace a rising sense of white victimhood

Trump may be out of power, but those feelings aren’t. They may even be growing. 

With President Biden having just passed one full year in office, public opinion research shows that white Americans — and especially Republicans — see whites as victims of discrimination more than, say, Hispanic or Black Americans. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, only 17 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Americans said there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in today’s society. That number rose to 26 percent when Republicans were asked whether they believed white people faced “a lot” of discrimination. And intense white racial resentment remains present both among Trump’s base and in our politics today. Case in point: Trump, who’s a (very, very early) favorite to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is still hitting that same drum; during a recent political event, the former president went so far as to falsely claim that white people were currently being discriminated against and sent to the “back of the line” when it came to receiving COVID-19 vaccines and treatment.

Trump is not the first white person to feel like a victim of discrimination or to make claims in that spirit. This phenomenon started long before him. But in the U.S., if we look at things like the racial wealth gap, mortgage denial rates, COVID-19 vaccination and illness rates, police violence rates or myriad other data sets, we quickly see plenty of systemic biases against Black Americans and other minority groups (such as increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans). You can’t, however, find such widespread evidence for anti-white discrimination. So why have many white Americans started to see themselves as the victims of racial discrimination?

Back in 2011, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and Tufts University professor Samuel Sommers published a study showing that white Americans perceived bias against whites as increasing from the 1950s to the 2000s. 

According to Sommers, it’s hard to pinpoint just one factor driving this feeling of white victimhood among white Americans. “There’s this sense that there’s only so much of anything to go around, so more of something for other groups or entities might mean less of something for me and my group,” he told us. “That makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about food at the table in front of you, but it feels like it’s getting applied to things like equal rights — or respect and status.” 

These feelings were especially prevalent in the late 2000s, when white people saw a Black man rising to the nation’s highest office. But today, beyond Obama, other perceived “threats” to white Americans — such as an increasingly multiracial nation that could eventually lead to the U.S. becoming a “majority-minority” society, or Trump’s loss in 2020 to Biden — likely fueled existing beliefs and feelings of inadequacy and victimhood among white Americans.

The same is likely true of the discussions about “racial reckonings” following the murder of George Floyd, coupled with a few high-profile examples of Black people breaking barriers. Indeed, previous polling has documented that white Americans — and especially white Republicans — largely think too much attention is paid to race and racial issues. And, as we wrote about in our last article, there are additional concerns about racial minorities getting more than they deserve. Kamala Harris’s ascendance to the vice presidency as well as the nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, for example, likely further stoked white Americans’ existing hatred against Black people and other marginalized groups. To use the language of Ohio State University professor Koritha Mitchell, “Black success beckons the mob.” There is a phenomenon Mitchell calls “know-your-place aggression” whereby U.S. culture celebrates the success of straight white men (regardless of their merit) but discourages, diminishes or destroys the achievements of members of other groups.

This phenomenon is related to one of the other things Sommers told us about: jockeying for stigma. 

“Maybe that’s a more general human phenomenon that transcends race and racism,” Sommers said, “but now we’re talking about it on a much more serious and problematic level.” When white Americans see minorities succeed, it threatens them in a way that makes them feel like victims. As Sommers puts it: “It seems like there’s some kind of status, attention or special treatment that certain white people think will be bestowed on them if they make the claim that they’ve been treated unfairly.”

In other words, for a “post-racial” America to exist, white people would need to see people of color ascending to higher political offices and an increasingly multiracial nation as a win for all of America. Instead, many take these things as a personal attack and view it as a loss of their own status at the top of America’s racial hierarchy. 

We see evidence for this in public opinion data, too. With the help of Kathleen Weldon and Jacob Harris of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research — a research center that has one of the largest archives of public opinion datasets (and where one of us, Neil Lewis Jr., is a faculty affiliate) — and Natalie Jackson from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), we looked at perceptions of discrimination against white Americans over time, and how those perceptions vary by both partisanship and race.

Since at least the year 2000, polling firms have been asking Americans questions about how much discrimination they perceive is faced by white Americans, asking respondents to place that discrimination on a scale or to compare it to other racial and ethnic groups. And our analysis of the Roper Center’s data shows that before Obama’s first election, roughly half of Republicans perceived there to be at least some discrimination against white people. Specifically, according to a 2000 poll from Princeton Survey Research Associates/The National Conference for Community and Justice, 56 percent of Republicans said that white Americans faced at least some discrimination, and by 2005, when the organizations asked the question again, that number dipped slightly to 47 percent. However, toward the end of Obama’s first term, other polling found the share of Republicans answering a similar question to be higher, as can be seen for the years 2011 and 2012 on the chart below, which uses data from PRRI.

PRRI has asked a slightly different question — to what extent respondents agree that discrimination against white Americans is now as significant of an issue as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities — almost yearly between 2011 and 2020. The trend across that timespan is a bit messier, but the share of Republicans who “completely agreed” or “mostly agreed” with the statement was mostly higher during Trump’s time in office than during Obama’s.

It is noteworthy that Democrats saw things quite differently than Republicans — indeed the clearest trend in the chart above is the polarization of views on this question along party lines. The percentage of Democrats who say there is at least “some” discrimination against whites has steadily decreased since the turn of the century, and this trend is consistent across both Roper and PRRI datasets. These trends are also consistent with new research that builds on Norton and Sommers’s initial work. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a team of researchers from Tufts, Harvard and the VA Bedford Healthcare System found that race and partisanship shape perceptions of racism as a zero-sum game. “Liberal White Americans saw racism as a zero-sum game they were winning by a lot, moderate White Americans saw it as a game they were winning by only a little,” the researchers wrote, “and conservative White Americans saw it as a game they were losing.”

Of course, race and partisanship are intertwined: The vast majority of Republicans are white, and indeed, if we look at the same question by race, we see similar patterns:

Worryingly, these trends may be increasing after Biden’s inauguration. PRRI didn’t ask the same question again in 2021, so we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison there. But according to Pew’s 2021 survey, the share of Republicans — including “leaners,” i.e., Americans leaning toward one party or the other — who said there is at least “some” discrimination against white people was 63 percent. This includes 26 percent who said there is “a lot” of discrimination against white people, which looks like an all-time high.

We say “looks” because the polling data we have is messy. If we compare the Pew data to past Pew data (so that the methodology and question wording is consistent), we see an increase from 2019 (16 percent) to 2021 (26 percent) for the share of Republicans saying white Americans face “a lot” of discrimination. Those are only two data points, of course. We’ll need more polling to know how to interpret that result for sure.

Still, other recent polls have yielded similar findings with different questions. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, using a summer 2021 poll conducted by Project Home Fire and InnovateMR, found that only 38 percent of Trump voters either somewhat or strongly agreed that white people have advantages over people of color (compared with 87 percent of Biden voters). Moreover, 84 percent of Trump voters expressed concern that bigotry against white people will surge in the coming years. Meanwhile, only 38 percent of Biden voters felt the same way.

What’s striking is how these perceptions persist even in the face of extraordinary evidence to the contrary. We have already discussed some domestic evidence about the persistence of racial discrimination against minority groups. Additionally, on the international stage, we see anti-Black racism manifesting even during a war: Journalists monitoring the invasion in Ukraine have reported that Black people are being violently removed from trains trying to get people to safety.

What could be fueling an increase in these views? Following Trump’s loss in 2020, the Republican Party leaned further into messages that paint Republicans and white people as victims of an overzealous movement for racial justice. For example, Fox News coverage of critical race theory — a decades-old framework for legal scholarship — surged during the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, according to a Newsweek analysis, only to quickly and starkly dip following Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win. And several pundits pointed to education and critical race theory as reasons for his success. Republicans have also found a seemingly successful political strategy in attacking and amplifying race-related buzzwords, such as “woke,” once used in activist circles. And as FiveThirtyEight contributors Hakeem Jefferson and Victor Ray pointed out on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the current narratives of victimization and the associated backlash to racial progress are some white people’s way of reckoning with the changing times.

Sommers underscored the gravity of leadership’s role in these processes when we talked with him: “If we’ve learned nothing else in the last five or so years, it’s just how influential top-down attitudes are. When leaders around the country and at a regional level are using racist or vulgar language themselves, that seems to move the needle on what’s considered normative and acceptable behavior in our society.”

If we want to address the inequities that continue to plague and divide our society, white Americans — and in particular, white Republicans — will need to move away from the victimhood narrative and acknowledge our current reality. And the extent that the inequities can be muted or even mitigated depends heavily on what politicians choose to emphasize in the narratives that they construct about the state of our union. The success of minorities does not mean victimization for white Americans. Without recognition that we can all succeed — and that the nation will be better off for it — the patterns of disparities we have discussed throughout will continue to persist, and we will all be worse off for it.

Alex Samuels is a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Lewis Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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