Reflection on “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing” Study

Reflection on “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing” Study June 10, 2011

Last week I saw this announcement about a new study on race by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers from Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School.  The general conclusion of the study is that basically, “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.”

From the Abstract [PDF of entire report]
Although some have heralded recent political and cultural developments as signaling the arrival of a postracial era in America, several legal and social controversies regarding ‘‘reverse racism’’ highlight Whites’ increasing concern about anti-White bias. We show that this emerging belief reflects Whites’ view of racism as a zero-sum game, such that decreases in perceived bias against Blacks over the past six decades are associated with increases in perceived bias against Whites—a relationship not observed in Blacks’ perceptions. Moreover, these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias.

The findings of the this report were no surprise to many I am sure, but it does raise a significant question as we think about any major social/cultural issue be it race, sexuality, gender, class, etc.  What do we do when a vital member of the community holds a perspective that is more about perception that reality?  While I get how White people can “feel” that this is their reality – they are targets of racism – we must not allow this perspective to drive the future of our conversations on race. Yes, there may certainly be instances where White folks are pained because of their race, but the idea that racism against White people should be taken seriously as a larger social reality does not hold water for me.  Compassion and understanding for particular instances where White folks are harmed because of the color of their skin must be had, but as a norm that drives larger understandings of race in the United States, acceptance and agreement are simple not options for me.

What I think is really going is that as the perceptions of racial relationships get better, there is a social understanding that if it is not that bad for brown people anymore then certainly it must be worse of for White folks.  This “if it’s better for ‘them’ it must be worse for ‘us'” mentality only exacerbates the problem of genuine racial harmony.

Now in business circles, where the primary matrix of success and relationships is financial profitability this may actually be true.  There is a finite amount of resources that are available for people to attain and exploit.  For instance, when I travel and board planes, I see that there are a limited number of seats in first class.  There is not an unlimited space for people to be part of that part of the airplane, so IF equal access and opportunity ever does level the playing field, a few of the 90% of White men who generally occupy those seats are going to have to walk a few more rows into coach because there will be women and brown folks moving on up.  The same goes for upper-management of fortune 500 companies, leaders of educational institutions and other places where White men still occupy a disproportionate number of high-level seats.

This notion that we each hold a finite amount of resources that must be protected at all costs, and even if those gains have roots in historic injustice and unearned privilege, is dangerous and will get us nowhere.  This will be especially true if  this posture of scarcity and protectionism is transfered  to our understanding of dignity, compassion and community. We often treat our own ability to see people as complex and created human beings as some kind of commodity that is doled out based on merit and/or availability furthering the idea that if am going treat this person with a generous spirit, then I must have to take something away from someone. And even worse, we fall into the destructive trap of believing that if I see someone else being treated with a generous spirit, then obviously something is being taken away from me.

Again, while there is a finite number of seats in First Class and the CEO table, the same does not hold true for the household of God.  Unlike our natural proclivity to ration our love like pennies in our pocket, God’s abundant love for another, does not mean less for you or I. As culture moves forward and race, gender and sexuality norms shift and change, those who have held a dominate role MUST not see or act out of a feeling that something is being taken away so it must be protected.  In fact, society will only reach further into the possibility of a just and whole world if those who hold power and authority joyfully usher in a distribution that provides for the well-being of all God’s people.

So . . . all compassion to White friends and strangers for the emotional and physical struggles around your experiences of race, but the social understanding that racism is now worse for White folks than for others must be not only be shed, but challenged by you and the rest society as a whole if we are truly going to move forward to a place of genuine racial wholeness.

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44 responses to “Reflection on “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing” Study”

  1. Thank you for commenting. I can see why you think this, but here was a transfer of the this blog a ways back from it’s original post and in the comments got all screwy. In over 8 years of blogging I have deleted MAYBE one or two comments because it included gratuitous vulgarity or threatened the life of my family. I deeply appreciate and explicitly encourage interaction and comment leaving, even if I can’t get to each of them.

  2. Actually, several individuals in the past have commented here, but apparently those comments did not fit the point of view of the author of the article so they have disappeared…

  3. @yahoo-FFK6RDTP6YXNRRBNOFNJFKIJNQ:disqus thanks for the multiple comments on this blog.  I would like to push back on this comment though and see if there is a place of agreement.  You said in your comment above, 
    “If so-called “progressives” were to learn that they could end racism with a single act, they would refuse it. Racism and victimization are powerful tools to the Left, which is more interested in pushing its own socialistic and self-destructive agenda than actually helping “people of color”.

    Is this not doing the very thing that you are accusing “liberals” and “progressives” of doing.  I am not saying it is not true that people do this, but to critique the tactic and then use it seems problematic.

    Could we not simple agree to disagree?  I am willing to sit with the tension that we can both be right and wrong about a great many things and that by more people being part of the conversation, we will move closer to a meaningful solution.

  4. If so-called “progressives” were to learn that they could end racism with a single act, they would refuse it. Racism and victimization are powerful tools to the Left, which is more interested in pushing its own socialistic and self-destructive agenda than actually helping “people of color”.

  5. [Hmmm.  I think it is interesting that the folks who now get so exercised
    about affirmative action for minorities, don’t complain when a similar
    set of preferences is invoked for privileged, rich, mostly white people.]

    You know that for a fact, or are you merely projecting?

    Self-described “liberals” and “progressives” seem to know what others think about certain issues, even when they have never even bothered to hear them out. Personally, I am fed up with people assuming my own personal objection to affirmative action or diversity means that I somehow once tolerated discrimination against minority groups. You people either need to put up some proof when you make such accusations or shut up. The incessant whining from the Left is really getting old…

  6. It seems from appearances you find it easy to tell others how they should be acting or living…

  7. So does your racism or racism like you two share run that deep in Catholicism? If so, that might begin to explain a few things…

  8. My niece cannot attend pre-k; she is white. Only spanish speaking children can attend. Yet my tax dollars pay for the course. 
    My son cannot get many college grants…because he is not illegal, or hispanic, or an immigrant, or from a colored race. 
    My wife cannot get a job in many offices or banks in our area. They hire only hispanics, not spanish speakers or spanish speaking hispanic but only hispanics (period).
    So I reject your faulty allegation that whites are not the victims of discrimination. Down here in Houston we ARE losing and are being marginalized. 
    Or to put all of this succinctly: You sir, are wrong. 

  9. Just want to clarify… I was ashamed and horrified at the behavior of people who made my friends of color so consistently alienated that thick skin was the only way to survive – not ashamed of my friends for their coping mechanisms. I was angry with everyone at the time – the perps and the peeps – for not just fixing it. I didn’t understand emotional exhaustion of addressing the pervasive power dynamics on a daily basis.

  10. Wow. Did not know this was a growing pattern. 

    I am white and I was also a minority in the towns and cities I grew up in in the Central Valley of California. However, as much tension as I experienced for being the (sometimes only) hakujin/meeka/huera/polangi/white chick–probably the same as being “the tall kid” or “the girl with the curly hair”– it was always clear to me that my sisters and brothers with other racial/ethnic identities were still victims of discrimination in overt and more subtle, passive-aggressive ways within the organizations and systems in our community. It took a very uncomfortable situation or two experienced alongside my friends in junior high and high school to realize the extent of the persisting problem. 

    The tension I felt as a minority (note: still in a position of privilege, whether conscious of that or not), was nothing compared to the pain and oppression that burdened their hearts and tried to rob their dignity. What was shameful for me was how they had grown such tough skin to remain impervious to the remarks and actions of the people around them.  What I find even more horrifying was how many of my friends assumed that this was just the way it was–there was no possibility for improvement. 

     There is so much distance between how communities actually behave and how God calls us to live into authentic and open community! That gap isn’t meant to be fixed at some unknown future date via magic, accident, or apocalypse… but instead through authentic, painfully honest, vulnerable, loving and humble conversations and shared lives across all kinds of boundaries. Getting into the Oppression Olympics of who-has-experienced-the-worst-behavior, we fail to listen compassionately to one another and God for guidance in living together and instead try to protect ourselves from the notion that there may be things we need to learn from one another (especially white folks, who may not always immediately perceive their own privilege) in order to allow the Beloved Community (where all are valued, affirmed, supported and loved) to take shape in our holy spaces and places. 

    Thanks for calling this out. And thanks for continuing to model grace in the midst of resistance to this truth. 

    (…And also, sorry for sucking so bad at WWF. I don’t think I’ve ever lost this badly.)

  11. @Baghdadbythebay:disqus Thanks for taking the time to comment and I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to get back to you.  You raise a number of points that we could have some good conversation about, but let me just ask you about the last one . . . can you flesh out the “replace white with black” . . . what does that look like? 

  12. @facebook-1165413497:disqus Thanks for taking the time to comment, but I am going to have to disagree with you on this one.  Here is a post I did on “colorblindness”.

  13. I hear what you are saying, but when we look at race in the US, we must take both a large view as well as small one.  Other groups have been navigating both for a long time. Asian American, for instance can embrace both their Asian American-ness as well as their Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc. identities.  I suppose the larger questions is does this strike you as true – the report – because I suspect that for most folks it is more of an affirmation of what folks feel than saying something is true or false.

    What I am hearing you say is that white folks do NOT feel this way?

  14. Hmmm.  I think it is interesting that the folks who now get so exercised about affirmative action for minorities, don’t complain when a similar set of preferences is invoked for privileged, rich, mostly white people.  Like it’s okay if a college picks a rich white guy who isn’t as smart as I am, but not okay if they pick someone from a minority race.  

  15. Bruce,
    Thank you for another thought provoking post. One question, is there a mobile friendly version of your blog? The Pathos site is great, but I don’t see a mobile version, and the RSS version only has a teaser line.
    Ryan Roser

  16. Bruce, I wonder if racial equality isn’t more the most obvious issue at hand but that class, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, as well as others, potentiate race as an issue because it simply so “in your face.” Just as caffeine in higher in others drinks than coffee, other chemicals in the coffee make the caffeine  effect that much stronger.
    On another note, in conversation with Orthodox sisters I have been deeply challenged as they recognize in every person they meet a “Child of God” created equally and fully with all. Humbling and humanizing.

  17. Which white race did they survey? my understanding is that there are 5 seperate european white races. In my own experience, my croation grandfather once told me that he thought it was good that the races mixed – my croation mom, and british dad. Both have dramatically different histories and cultures. So when I’m called white, and my divergennt but merged histories and values are lumped in a classification under the authority of the “Harvard” name and brand, what am I to do? will onyone listen, does anyone care? In the end its about resources and who controls them. Until that is agreed upon unanimously there will always be ways to demonize the other side

  18. The ways that privilege operates often seem mysterious.  I have for many years heard the argument about whites who are not on top.  I have never been at the top economically, and in the current economy many in my family have felt pressure and lost jobs (as I have myself), which assists in the belief that everyone is the same and we are all living under the same stressors. 

    Yet, when I go into a store, an airport, or a restaurant, I can be invisible in ways that my two children who are African-American cannot — they are always noticed and their presence remembered.  The anonymity that comes with people expecting my presence and not going “on the alert” when I arrive is a gift that comes with my white skin.  Particularly for my son, a young Black man, his arrival is noticed and we can document countless examples of people becoming wary when he came into a room.  The default reaction in many contexts is fear. 

    Having lived in Africa for six years and travelled around the continent by air, I came to realize that the airports of Africa are filled with white people, and relatively few others, except for many working there.  Privilege extends around the world and skin color matters.  It is true in the US, and it is true in the US church.  This reality must be acknowledged and confronted — particularly by we who are white.

    Thanks, Bruce —

  19. I think the real issue is reverse racism.  If people were merely encouraged to be color blind… or color blindedness was enforced.. this would be fine.  The problem is that affirmative action says quite affirmatively that people of color lack the skill, intelligence, life experience, and even potential to compete.  This is the real problem and an affront to the dignity of people of color.

  20. Services for the poor are increasingly restricted as being for “people of color” only, often with the support of wealthy White elites who want to burnish their diversity credentials, have no need for them, and want the poor to fight among themselves.   More and more programs are set aside for specific groups while poor Whites are expected to share the shrinking pool of non-targeted services with everyone, regardless of background.

    In cities where Whites (e.g., Los Angeles, San Antonio) make up a third or less of the population, money flows to the rich Whites and to people of color (of any class) at the expense of poorer White people.  The rich get their health care at private and people of color are eligible for services at the Martin Luther King Clinic, Clinica de La Raza, etc.  What do poor Whites get?

    The same is true of college scholarships, one can read through pages of need-blind scholarships set aside for people of color.  Rich Whites get legacy admissions and the advantage of the school knowing they will need little or no aid. People of color get scholarships.  Again, what do poor Whites get?

    San Francisco, at least with respect to HIV/AIDS services, is the same.  There are services targeted for wealthy and middle class gay White men, and for every conceivable subgroup of People of Color, who have multiple agencies set aside for them.  White transgenders and gay White youth, for example, are welcome essentially nowhere in the constellation of non-profits — they are neither middle class gay men nor people of color.  Giving a slot to a poor White fails to “improve diversity” and would violate funding conditionalities.

    The rich Whites have done an excellent job of preserving wealth and their class privilege by pitting poor Whites against people of color, and vilifying both sides in the resulting struggles for services. They much prefer poor people to blame other poor people, than for poor people to call for a reallocation of the immense wealth held by banking and other elites.

  21. Sure!  Why don’t you tell this to someone who’s white who’s been the victim of Affirmitive Action.

    Then come back, and we’ll talk.

  22. I’m white so I don’t tell other races about how to feel about being discriminated against.  Guess what I think you should do?

  23. Ironically I see this as a good thing, and as inevitable. 

    Do minorities never, ever, overreact and see racism where there isn’t, or use it as the explanation for a white person’s behavior when there are no other apparent explanations, or perhaps even feign that there is when they know there isn’t? And have whites “at the top” never been wrongly, and even sometimes falsely, accused of racism? 

    We whites aren’t any less human than anyone else. And so I think it’s only a natural development that whites start seeing things. As our society goes through more growing pains it is only inevitable that whites will make accusations of racism; some of these accusations will have merit, others will be baseless, others will be hypersensitive overreactions stemming from experiences that clearly had to do with racism. 

    I was first accused of racism in the 3rd grade and sent to the office: my black principal made sure the substitute never came back. I mention this only to say that every white child growing up in the US knows what it’s like to be wrongly accused of racism. This is not to say that compares to be calling the N word from a passing truck, just that when Glen Beck said Obama hates white people, I’m not outraged. Of course the accusation was baseless, but “blacks at the top” had better get used to it – it’s not like that never happens to a white man. Sadly it’s natural and comes with the territory. I simultaneously want to say “Get used to it” and “Welcome to the club.” 

  24. It think it’s different in that white people are becoming a minority, but being attack for being the majority when they aren’t. While in San Francisco white makes up 40%, asian is at 33% and climbing. I don’t see a problem with the black or hispanic people I meet. I’ve never heard a hispanic person snicker when I order a burrito that I may not know how to eat it, but I have had people at asian restaurants tell me how to eat the food like I’m a five year old who’s experiencing it for the first time.

  25. What about the white people who aren’t at the top? I have seen every other race talk about how they were scorned and persecuted when they were younger. Fiona Ma was even tweeting that yesterday. That’s what the majority is saying and now they’re looking down at the middle class white people who worked hard to provide for their families without scorn and persecution only to be looked down on as “the man” now. How is it any different we all worked hard to get where we are, but only one race is having the finger pointed at them. The fact that a minister is “getting” how “white folks” feel they are “targets of racism” but choses to push it aside is in and of itself inherently racist.

    I don’t necessarily feel I have been targeted by racism, but I do feel that being white and male means to employers that you aren’t supporting diversity when you’re looking at people to hire. San Francisco was far more ethnically diverse when I was a child. I went to school with kids who had come from all over the world.  Today the school I started my education at is 77% Chinese. 60% of the neighborhood is now Asian and we have an Asian minister saying that racism against “white folk” is nothing to be concerned about? Replace white with black in this article and see how far it gets you.

  26. Bruce,

    it’s not a zero-sum game. Not entirely. And for a reason you might not expect.

    (Laura Viau has made some related points, in her review.)

    As a systems analyst, one is taught to look at a system the way it is, and ask: Why is this system here? Very often, unless dealing with some very simple mechanical system, the answer goes beyond simple multiple choice. It often goes beyone what casual observers can even guess.

    There are ALWAYS reasons that stable systems remain stable over years. To change them effectively, you MUST know why they are stable, first.

    In our society, individuals are faced with far more decisions than they can possibly handle. Yesterday, I went to a birthday party. In my whole day, I made only one especially thoughtful decision: What to buy as a gift. All the rest was rote: The highway I took, my driving responses, the food I selected at the party, even when I “decided” to leave. All the rest was according to pattern.

    One of the things that supports racism is people’s need to simply decision-making. It’s easier to treat all vegetarians, or communists, or Muslims in a similar way. At least initially. We do things like this because often these groups see themselves in stereotypes, too, and there is no way we can treat each of the six billion people on the planet as individuals.

    So racism is not a zero-sum game. It’s an ignorant game that hurts people, but it’s also a game that is in some limited sense, functional.

  27. Your heart is in the right place, Bruce, but I’d like to know more information on the Tuft’s/Harvard study: how many people were included, where they live, what their tax brackets are, which questions they were asked, etc.

    This language I find essentializes whites: “these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that
    Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal
    problem than anti-Black bias.”

    Of course, those people are all the same. My point is that these studies, though useful in getting and keeping us talking about “race” (which is really a social construction and not a scientific category), do not and cannot adequately reflect what the entirety of a segment of the population perceives or thinks or believes. I know you know this. But your tone seems to suggest that you’ve bought an essentialist argument. Of course you’re a journalist; perhaps you only desired to hook a fish like me.

  28. I have to wonder if this phenomenon is linked to an idea that being a minority, as white people are increasingly becoming in cities and towns like mine, necessarily brings with it persecution from those in the majority?  It’s a non-sequiter argument, but it has been one explanation for why a white majority treated a black and brown minority a generation ago.

  29. Hatred of white folks and collective guilt have been around for along time.  Nothing new and the snide comments preceeding are to be expected.  Our burden.

  30. Unfortunately, this was quite visible in the seminary as we began to talk about race and diversity–it became clear that for especially our young white male seminarians, who were used to having ‘the whole pie’ of privilege, so to speak, they felt a deep sense of loss over having to ‘share the pie’ with others.  Unfortunately, the facilitators on faculty did not really have helpful comments to work them through that point, other than to tell those of us who were already quite accustomed to sharing pies or waiting to have a slice to try not to make them feel so bad.

  31. It seems to me that racism is self-evidently a zero-sum game.  So if someone is deeply embedded in the game – if they are heavily bought into it, so to speak – then it is definitely a situation where one side rising in status appears to necessitate another side falling in status.

    And, as you point out, in some cases this view is *true*.  Greater equality in society necessarily means that the rich and the powerful will lose some of what they have. Otherwise, why would they fight equality so vigorously?  Now, in return for this loss of some power, I think that they/we get a better society and better lives overall.  But the fact remains that, even without quota systems, there is a zero-sum element to how our society functions, whether it is regarding various races, or women, or disabled people or whomever rising in status.

    This rise in status is not a bad thing – morally it is a good thing – but I can certainly see people at the top of the current system being unhappy about the change.  And since those people control most of our media, then those who identify with them (middle class and working class Whites who imagine they too could be millionaires if they just work hard or whatever) would also be turned to this view.  

    “There’s less up here at the top, boys – and it’s because of reverse racism.”

    Really, the key here is to move to non-zero-sum games rather than zero-sum games.  Or, rather, to recognize that even economic systems are non-zero-sum games.  More freedom for everyone means more potential good for everyone.

  32. I see this in so many arenas where whomever the privileged or empowered
    are challenged to make space for others.  They are suddenly victims of
    some sort of oppression, even though they are only asked to share…  Is this because we have been more comfortable framing conversations in terms of “victim” and “perpetrator” or “powerful” and “powerless”  – thus leaving no vocabulary for a change in status other than the language of dichotomy?