President Donald Trump announced on Sept. 5 an end to critical race theory training in federal agencies. As explained by Russ Vought, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the policy change targets “training or propaganda” pertaining to “white privilege” and efforts to advance the claim that “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or … that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” On Sept. 22, the president extended this ban to companies doing business with the federal government. He was right on both counts.
Critical race theory and similar academic left perspectives over the last decade stormed the political mainstream through a surge in news and popular media attention. As a result, today politicians, celebrities, and corporations employ “critical,” or woke, rhetoric. Even comic books push critical themes despite hostile reactions from their readers.
On the left, this dynamic fueled the “Great Awokening,” the leftward radicalization of white liberals on racial issues. Liberal whites are now to the left of blacks on key measures of race. Moreover, as evidenced by a recent Hidden Tribes report and the mugshots of arrested Antifa members, the far left is overwhelmingly white.
But how has critical rhetoric affected right-leaning whites? Are white conservatives likewise getting woke to these Marxism-inspired perspectives? Are they rejecting normative colorblindness, the former standard of antiracism? Have they embraced The New York Times’ revisionist account of American history? Do they accept that only whites are capable of racism, that all whites are racist, and that white identity itself is uniquely pathological and deserving of abolition?
To the contrary, it seems that white identity’s renewed salience — its “visibility,” in the language of Peggy McIntosh — is contributing to a defensive response. Conservative whites are increasingly likely to describe being white as “very” or “extremely” important (see figure below). A clear majority of white Republicans, but few white Democrats, describe anti-white and anti-black discrimination as comparable problems in American society.
Then there is the proverbial elephant in the room: Trump. Notwithstanding the often disingenuous and sometimes absurd racism allegations some level at him, it is undeniable that Trump frequently transgresses norms of political correctness in communicating his views to the public. Such rhetoric resonates with people who appreciate Trump’s blunt style or delight in trolling the left, but it also resonates with people for whom white identity is especially important. The latter group includes the alt-right, a white nationalistic movement that emerged in the wake of the Great Awokening.
Did the Media Drive a ‘White-lash’?
In my dissertation research, I approach white nationalism and conservatism as rival philosophies competing for the loyalties of right-leaning whites. I consider whether exposure to critical themes in popular media might have contributed to a white identity backlash or “white-lash” on the right. Illustrative examples include:
- The Huffington Post: “Ten Things White People Need to Quit Saying.”
- Salon Magazine: “White Men must be Stopped, the Very Future of Humanity Depends Upon it” and “10 Ways White People are More Racist than they Realize.”
- Vice: “Dear White People, Please Stop Pretending Reverse Racism is Real.”
- Buzzfeed: “21 Things White People Ruined in 2015, Besides Everything.”
I began my inquiry by searching the frequency with which the terms “white people,” “whites,” and “white men” appeared online since the year 2000. I recorded “hits” for articles criticizing white people and identity and for “anti-critical” articles, those arguing against critical themes (see Schorr forthcoming, Appendix 197 for details).
The figure below displays search results alongside trends in white identification — or “How important is being white to your identity?” — for self-identified “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative” whites in the American National Election Studies Time Series.
The proportion of conservatives describing white identity as “very” or “extremely” important (“high identifiers”) increased from 32.1 percent in 2012 to 36.6 percent in 2016. High-identifying liberals increased slightly (23.2 percent to 24.6 percent) as well, while high-identifying moderates decreased (32.7 percent to 29.4 percent). The timeline is truncated because the American National Election Studies first included the white identification measure in 2012; however, the trend lines suggest recent polarization on white identity.
Survey Reveals Harms of Critical Race Theory
To subject the whitelash hypothesis to a more rigorous test, I conducted a survey experiment from Aug. 1-29, 2019. In total, 1,527 white respondents were treated with “primes” representative of contemporary discussions of race and then questioned on topics of identity and group attitudes. I focused specifically on self-identified conservative and high white-identifying respondents.
To capture the effects of critical rhetoric, I used an excerpt from Macy Sto. Domingo’s “18 Things White People Seem To Not Understand (Because, White Privilege).” Among white conservatives, this “critical prime” predicted 8 percent increased support (weighted mean) for whites “work[ing] together to improve the position of their group,” in comparison to the “control group.”
To further probe the effects of critical themes on identity, I asked respondents to rate the importance of certain factors to being “truly American.” Here, critical prime exposure appears to have narrowed the boundaries of the “in-group.”
For example, conservative whites expressed 12 percent greater agreement that only those with “American ancestry” are truly American. High white-identifiers expressed 20 percent greater agreement with this same claim and 8 percent greater support for restricting American identity to those “born in the U.S.” Critical prime exposure also increased conservative “ethnocentrism,” or net “feeling thermometer” preference for whites over minorities by 5 percent.
In most cases, findings were the opposite for white leftists. Exposure to the critical prime thus created a wider gap between the racial attitudes reported by left-leaning and conservative (also low/high white-identifying) whites.
I next considered the effects of anti-critical and conciliatory primes. The former was excerpted from Dennis Prager’s “The Fallacy of White Privilege.” As the title suggests, Prager challenges the credibility of critical themes.
The conciliatory prime was excerpted from David French’s “Racism and the Indelible Impact of Personal Experience.” French does not address critical themes. Rather, he recounts becoming more aware of racial prejudice in day-to-day interactions after he and his wife, who are white, adopted their black daughter.
Before analyzing survey findings, my expectation was that exposure to anti-critical rhetoric would similarly mobilize identification and prejudice from the target groups. I was half right. Surprisingly, the Prager article was associated with sharp reductions in identification: High-identifying whites expressed less concern for whites’ comparative social position (-11 percent), job security (-15 percent), and treatment under the law (-9 percent).
Findings from the conciliatory prime were also mixed. High white-identifiers were more willing to restrict American identity to those with “American ancestry” (8 percent), but they also expressed 14 percent greater agreement that “racial minorities are, on average, just as patriotic as white Americans.” Crucially, white conservative ethnocentrism dropped 24 percent. Thus, findings from both “conservative” primes offered cause for optimism whereas findings from the critical prime were more consistently undesirable.
Much can be said regarding the conceptual and normative deficiencies of critical race theory and whiteness studies, including how these perspectives demean people of color. My research concerns their practical deficiencies. Insofar as white identity polarization is a reciprocal process, critical race theory and company likely advance the cause of white nationalism.
The president is right to oppose critical race theory, and opponents of racism should applaud his efforts.