In her new book, “White Identity Politics,” the Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina examines the increasing relevance of white identity in America. Drawing on data from American National Election Studies surveys and her own research, Jardina finds that about thirty to forty per cent of white Americans say that white identity is important to them, and she adds an interesting twist—that this group only partly overlaps with the group of white Americans who hold racist views. According to Jardina’s analysis, about thirty-eight per cent of white people who highly value their white identity are at or below the mean level of racial resentment, while forty-four per cent of white people who say their racial identity is less important are at or above that level. “For those invested in racial equality, this outcome should be of little comfort,” Jardina writes, of white Americans asserting their identity, with or without explicit racial resentment. In the past, she notes, when white people have been asked to share resources and power, they have not responded “by leveling the field; instead, they have expanded the scope of who is considered white, allowing the racial hierarchy to remain more firmly in place.”
I recently spoke with Jardina by phone. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed which voters exhibit the strongest feelings of white identity, how Donald Trump has unified different groups of white voters around his Presidency, and why some Americans who score low on tests of racism still identify strongly as white.
How has white identity changed over the past several decades?
One thing that’s different is how salient and politically relevant it is. We don’t have good public-opinion data going back in time to indicate that levels of white identity in the population have changed, or that now more people are identifying with their racial group than in the past. But what’s certainly clear is the extent to which white identity, or racial identity for some whites in the United States, matters for how they view the political and social world.
Think about white identity as being episodic and contextual. It’s politically relevant when something happens in the environment that makes it relevant, or when élites try to activate it, but it’s not always a force in politics in the way that we’re observing it to be today. If we could go back to the nineteen-twenties, in the wake of massive immigration to the United States, or if we could go back to the civil-rights movement, there are periods when there was a challenge to the dominant status of whites. There’s a possibility that the United States was no longer going to be defined by whiteness. These are places in time in which we might have seen white identity matter just as we’re seeing it matter today.
How do you come to the conclusion that white identity tends to experience spikes when there is a change in the country, or when politicians wield ideas of whiteness or racism, without all the survey data we would like?
We do have some data from the past. I’m not the first political scientist to interrogate the idea of white identity. There were people—mainly people who were interested in racial prejudice and racial resentment, some of whom were actually my advisers—who looked to see if white identity mattered in the mid-nineteen-nineties and in the early two-thousands, and this is a period in time in which the country was really different. We hadn’t seen the election of the nation’s first black President. And so, when political scientists looked to see whether white identity mattered for political attitudes and behavior, they really found nothing. There wasn’t much to uncover.
I think we social scientists were looking for white identity in the wrong places. One of the distinctions I make in the book is between the ideas of identity and prejudice. This is the distinction between in-group attitudes and out-group attitudes. For good reason, a lot of work on whites’ racial attitudes in the U.S. has focussed on racial prejudice. We want to understand where discrimination and bigotry and all these things come from, and what the consequences are.
But there was a tendency to think about white identity as just another manifestation of prejudice. So what people did is they went out and they said, “O.K., white identity ought to project things like opposition to welfare, opposition to things that benefit blacks.” Maybe, if we’d gone back earlier in time, and looked to see if white identity affected opinions on immigration or support for policies that benefit whites, we would have seen different effects and different results. We probably would have seen that white identity did matter politically to some extent, even well before we saw the big political things in the environment that I argue activate white identity.
How much of a connection is there between strongly identifying with whiteness and racist attitudes?
Not as strong as you might think. It’s certainly the case that there are some people who identify as white and who are also racist. But it’s not a one-to-one relationship. The connection is fairly weak, and that’s for two reasons. One is that there are a lot of white people who are more racially prejudiced who do not identify as being white, and the converse is true. Then there are a number of white people who feel strongly attached to their group but who aren’t particularly prejudiced.
How do you understand the first of those? Because that’s not intuitive.
The first one? I actually think the first one is the more intuitive.
Tell me why.
One reason that we haven’t talked a lot about whiteness in the past is because whites don’t have to confront their racial identity the way that people of color in the United States traditionally have. So we think about whiteness and white identity as being an invisible group identity because whites don’t experience systematic subordination or discrimination. They have the lion’s share of economic power and resources. A white person might not think about their own group. They might not feel that their group is threatened. They might not feel a sense of attachment to their group. But they still could go about their lives disliking people of color.
Is there some sort of pattern in terms of the heritage of white people in either group, or whether they’re men or women?
What’s interesting is how dispersed they actually are. I think we have an image in our minds of who this person who scores high on white identity probably is, like, a man from the South in a working-class job, and that’s not actually true. There are people across the income spectrum, across the country generally.
There are some connections. Geographically, some whites in the Deep South are slightly more likely to identify as white, but it’s not overwhelming. I don’t want to paint a portrait that most white identifiers are from some Deep South state and are men, because that’s not the case. It’s actually women who are more likely to identify as white. I don’t want to overstate it. But, when I do look at patterns across gender, it’s actually women who identify more with their racial group.
Do you have a theory about why that is?
One compelling explanation is that, when it comes to social identities, people like to identify with higher-status groups. And so for women, if you’ve got a choice between your gender and your race, identifying as a white person is a higher-status group. It imbues this greater sense of self-esteem.
How have you seen, or not seen, white people’s conception of their white identity change since Trump announced that he was running for President?
I don’t think there’s been a major shift. To the extent I’ve observed something, it’s that, for some white people, Trump has made the idea of identifying as white a little bit more taboo. I have observed a slight decrease in levels of white identity since Trump took office. But for the most part I think Trump has made most of his base of white identifiers feel pretty secure in their identity. He’s catered to them from day one, and continues to double down on the political issues that matter most to this group.
I mean, we see this now with his strong stance on the border wall. Immigration is a particularly important topic to white identifiers, and Trump has continued to make that a central issue to the national political agenda, even in the face of the fact that we don’t have a border crisis. Since Trump took office, immigration levels have decreased in the United States.
You say there’s not the connection we might expect between emphasizing white identity and racism, but you also say that white identifiers care especially about immigration. How do you understand the connection between caring about immigration and racism?
For people high on white identity, opposition to immigration doesn’t necessarily come as a result of disliking Latinos. It is rooted in something different, which is that they think immigration is threatening American culture, but a particular flavor of American culture, one which is defined by Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage, which is very much defined by whiteness. Somebody might just be opposed to immigration because they dislike Latinos. But there’s a different component to this that’s going on in the minds of a lot of white people. It’s not, “I dislike Latino people.” It’s, “I don’t like the idea that the country that I envision, the country that I grew up in, the place that is defined by this Anglo-Saxon culture, is somehow threatened by this new group. I don’t like the idea that we’re talking about Spanish being a prevalent language rather than English.” It’s about the erosion of the ability to define mainstream America as white.
Truth be told, I don’t spend a lot of time around people who say things like “I hate Spanish options on phone menus” or “Anglo-Saxon culture is dying out,” so I don’t want to overstate my knowledge about what they actually believe. But I think the people you hear say things like that tend to have views that are racist. But you seem to be saying that some of the people who make these arguments do not show up as being racist in their opinions in the way a lot of Americans do, and so that’s why you don’t feel comfortable calling them racist even though a lot of these arguments, I think, are not entirely wrongly associated with racists.
They’re not wrongly associated with racists. I think there’s a lot of nuance to this that is important to think about. I’m not saying all people who identify as white are devoid of racism, or that there’s no relationship between the two. There certainly is. But there are a lot of people in the middle of these spectrums who don’t hold really egregious racial attitudes, but at the same time they are not particularly comfortable with their country becoming more diverse. It’s in part because they’re worried about the status of their group and the loss of the privileges that their group has. If you think about racism in part as being about structural inequality between groups, then this is a lot about racism. It’s about a racial hierarchy. It’s about systems of oppression.
I know in England there’s been a ton of resentment toward European immigrants from places like Poland. They are obviously white, and, though they perhaps don’t face as much bigotry as immigrants from Pakistan or India, they obviously still face a lot of discrimination.
Yeah. That’s definitely true. It’s also the case that we change our definitions of who’s white, and what immigrants we think are appropriate or not. But we know that whites in the United States are less opposed to immigration from Western European countries than they are from other places.
Many self-identified white people do not have Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, so how do you understand their connection to that heritage, or what they see as its traditions?
You are talking about Italians, or something?
I think those ethnicities don’t matter as much as they used to. Even though some people might feel some attachment to a European heritage that at one point wasn’t considered white, the Anglo-Protestant sense of whiteness has been broadly painted as a “European” heritage. Most white people in the United States aren’t really splitting hairs that much, and probably a lot of people don’t realize that when many of their ancestors immigrated to the United States, they were not considered white. There’s this assumption that people from Europe are white people and have always been. We know that’s not true.
How does Trump do among voters who don’t score high on racial resentment but do score high on white identity?
He does well. So that’s part of why he’s been so effective compared to other Republican candidates. Racial attitudes, racial resentment did a great job predicting support for Republican candidates and their primaries across the board, but Trump was the only candidate [in the 2016 Republican primaries] who also appealed to whites who were high on white identity.
If these people are scoring high on racial identity and voting for a racist, how relevant is it that they don’t score high on tests of racial bias?
Part of the thing to think about is there are two forces at play in American political life. One is that you can race-bait and attract the racists. The other is that you can attract people who aren’t necessarily that racist but who are worried about their group. Sometimes I think that’s the most insidious thing, because the risk here is that whites now think it’s O.K. to talk about being proud of being white, to organize around their group, and they’re borrowing the strategy that people of color have used to organize around their race, and they’re relating it to those groups to say, “Hey, if black people can do this, we should be able to do this, too.” It’s actually a way of trying to maintain a racial hierarchy that just sounds more palatable.
Should we look to Obama’s election to account for the rise of white identity, or is there some other overwhelming factor that explains why this is happening?
It’s really hard to untangle these different effects. Whites who score really high in white identity were far less likely to vote for Obama in 2012. So white identity mattered politically at the national level before Trump ever entered the scene. We know that to be true. Obama won because he was able to mobilize an impressive coalition of people of color. He won because of all the things that were happening in the country that are activating white voters—because the country was becoming more racially diverse.
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