News & Politics

White People Lack Empathy Across the Socioeconomic Spectrum, New Study Reveals

We can't keep attributing Trump's rise to economic anxiety.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Kelly Bell

Since the election of Donald Trump, the hunt to figure out what’s the matter with White America has pitted racism against economic anxiety as if those things existed in separate and competing silos, forcing a narrow debate about the future of identity politics that seemingly goes nowhere. Instead of a post-racial America, two terms of America’s first black president left many voters -- and a large majority of political pundits -- ill-equipped to discuss what it means to be white in America at precisely the time when whites have reasserted their collective identity in this nation.

So while Trump’s rise is often explained as the blowback for a society more focused on Black Lives Matter or trans bathroom bans instead of jobs for coal miners and a growing opioid epidemic, the curious case of a growing racial empathy gap in this country has been unfairly shouldered by Trump’s white voters. An eye-opening new survey, however, reveals that white Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum, including Democrats, are considerably less concerned about both economic and racial inequality -- it just all depends on where on the socioeconomic spectrum they stand.

While working-class white folks made up Trump’s signature demographic, it was a surge of whites with college degrees that helped him flip notably blue states like Pennsylvania. These college-educated white people, a new survey from the nonpartisan PRRI found, lack empathy on issues of poverty that place them in stark contrast with the blue-collar voters who have been identified as Trump’s base.

White college-educated Americans are far less likely to say poverty is a critical issue — only 37 percent, compared to 47 percent of white non-college-educated Americans and a majority of Hispanic and black Americans (at 52 and 69 percent, respectively). According to PRRI, white college-educated Americans are also less likely than non-college whites to say that children living in poverty is a critical issue to them (49 percent compared to 60 percent). Only 36 percent of college-educated whites say lack of well-paying jobs is a major problem facing communities.

The empathy gap of college-educated whites only widens in regions where Trump excelled electorally, like the Southwest and the Southeast. White college-educated residents of those regions are far less concerned than those without a college degree about the lack of equal opportunity in education. Nearly half of white college-educated respondents (46 percent) told PRRI that it is not a major problem if not everyone has an equal chance in life — a view shared by only 36 percent of those without a college education.

And it’s not just on matters of economic opportunity that white college-educated respondents exhibit a deep lack of compassion for the plight of others. Only 33 percent of white college-educated respondents said that domestic violence was a critically important issue, compared to 47 percent of whites with no college degree, and 63 percent of black respondents.

Meanwhile, white respondents without a college degree were more likely to affirm the importance of equal opportunity and to support economic policies that address those issues, but they simultaneously denied that social factors such as racism play a significant role in structuring inequality. So while 64 percent of white Americans with a college degree reported moderate to high affinity for people of color, 64 percent of whites without a college degree in the Southeast and Southwest -- including 31 percent of Democrats -- said discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Strikingly, more than 40 percent of young white people (under age 30) in these regions agreed that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against nonwhites.

“A central takeaway of the survey is that support for issues affecting disadvantaged kids is limited among whites at both ends of the educational spectrum,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, explained. “But this manifests in different ways: By negative racial attitudes among the white working class and by a striking lack of concern about equal opportunity among college-educated whites.”

America’s exceptionalism has been rooted in the country’s relative lack of tribalism. That’s falling apart, and it’s not simply the fault of identity politics. Political identity and partisanship have in recent decades increasingly fused with racial, ethnic and religious identity. As PRRI noted when releasing its survey on Monday, the Republican Party is increasingly becoming a party of white evangelical Protestants, while the Democratic Party is increasingly the home of ethnic minorities and the religiously unaffiliated. College-educated whites who did not vote for Trump, with their lack of religious affiliation and apparent lack of economic empathy, are a big reason why the post-election autopsy still hasn’t concluded in the Democratic Party.

There is no point in having a debate on economic anxiety versus old-fashioned racism when a huge swath of white people insist that barriers to success in this country are conceived more in economic than in social terms, while another group of white people seem unable to empathize with the suffering of others, even those who look like them.  

 

Sophia Tesfaye is the Deputy Politics Editor at Salon.

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