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Is Belief in Discrimination Against White Americans Dangerous?

Protests against racism erupted in Portland and across Oregon this summer. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Protests against racism erupted in Portland and across Oregon this summer. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
December 27, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. – The number of white Americans who believe they face discrimination is on the rise, raising the question of how this might affect the country.

According to a recent poll, 55 percent of white Americans believe their group experiences racial discrimination.

Clara Wilkins, an assistant professor of psychology at Wesleyan University who studies prejudice, says this perception has grown rapidly since Barack Obama was elected president.

For many, Obama's election was a sign of racial progress, but Wilkins says a subset of white Americans saw this as upsetting the social order.

Somewhat counter intuitively, her research finds people who believe the country is fair and just also are more likely to perceive discrimination against white people in the wake of Obama's election.

"For people who think society is fair, they're the ones who sort of tend to think that the order of society where whites have greater access to wealth, power, status, etc. – that is legitimate and it's fair and it's not based in bias,” she states. “And so, if you reject those beliefs – you think that it's not fair – then those are the people who actually welcome social change."

As Wilkins notes, the reality is that vast inequalities in wealth and electoral representation still exist for racial minorities.

She says the growing number of hate groups nationwide after Obama's election is one of the dangers from the perception of prejudice against white people.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies a number of white supremacist groups in Oregon.

Wilkins and a colleague at Wesleyan have been able to measure the growing perception of bias.

In one of their studies, participants either read an article on racial progress or one that had nothing to do with race.

Those who read the article on racial progress were more likely to believe white people experience discrimination.

And according to Wilkins, further research shows this group isn't likely to stay on the sidelines.

"The problem is that for these people who really think that the order of society should be a particular way – what they experience by perceiving bias is that they should do something to re-establish that order," she states.

Wilkins says demographic projections showing that white Americans will become the minority in the next few decades is contributing to the idea that white people are under attack.

She says while fighting back against this perception is hard, the best way might be to downplay the idea of competition between different groups of people.



Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR