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What White People Fear

Understanding the fears behind the racial politics of both conservative and liberal whites can help change a society in which wealth and well-being are still tied to race.
 
 
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In the struggle for racial justice, it’s time to pay more attention to the fears of white people. 

In a white-dominated world, that may seem counterintuitive. In the racial arena, what do we white people have to be afraid of?

There are lots of things to fear in this world, of course; race is not the only aspect of life in which people face injustice and inequality. A majority of people of all colors (including working-class and poor whites) struggles economically in a predatory corporate capitalist system, and all women, regardless of race, cope with gender discrimination and the threat of sexual violence in a male-dominated world.

But what fears could white people have as white people?

Understanding the fears behind the racial politics of both conservative and liberal whites can help guide strategy for changing a society in which wealth and well-being are still tied to race. And make no mistake, there is still a racialized gap between white and non-white America on measures of wealth and well-being—income, home ownership, graduation rates, access to health care, infant mortality, etc. In fact, the gap between white and black America on some of these measures is greater today than in the immediate aftermath of the major legislative achievements of the civil rights movement, and on some measures the rate of improvement is so glacial that it will be decades, if not centuries, before we reach equality. The legislative achievements that ended legal apartheid in America were a great victory, but the economic apartheid that remains is a reminder of our failures.

Put bluntly: The United States abolished a formal apartheid system but remains a white-supremacist society. After more than a decade of writing and speaking about these issues, which has sparked lots of feedback from all political angles, here’s what I have concluded about white folks and our fears.

Aren’t We Special?

For conservative white people, the dominant fear is of someday living without the privilege that comes with whiteness. Polite conservatives defend the primacy of “Western civilization.” More reactionary whites are openly racist about the threat that non-white peoples pose to “our way of life.” Both versions defend the existing distribution of wealth and power, even though many of the working-class and poor whites who endorse such views have access to precious little wealth or power. Race is used by white elites today, just as it was in the nation’s formative years, to drive a wedge between people who would otherwise come together to challenge those elites. Divide-and-conquer strategies, it seems, never go out of style.

Liberals are quick to denounce both the thinly veiled and the openly reactionary conservative racism. But what of the fears of liberals? White liberals might reject the very idea that they are afraid, citing their support for diversity and multiculturalism. But my experience suggests that while white liberals reject assertions of white supremacy, many fear the loss of white centrality. They are willing to renounce the idea that white people are superior, as long as they are allowed to live comfortably in a world where white is the norm.

In short, both the conservative and liberal positions are based on the same underlying assertion: “I’m white, and I’m special.” Conservatives are more likely to say it openly, while liberals tend to offer platitudes about racial justice while avoiding the risks required to make good on anti-racist principles.

What remains obscured is the distinctly uncivilized nature that Europeans and European Americans exhibited during their barbarous conquest of much of the world. The inherently fragile sense of white self-importance that emerges from that history is at the core of white fears—at some level, we all know that the truth of the depravity of white supremacy belies claims of white superiority.

 
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