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White Americans and 'White Consciousness'

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Do white Americans "identify" just as do minority groups?

Does "white consciousness" reflect racist attitudes and beliefs?

Is such racial consciousness a southern phenomenon?

It is almost impossible to avoid discussions of "whiteness" in contemporary literature about race relations in America. Conversations about the cultural psyche of African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups inevitably drift to notions about white privilege and white guilt.

However, we do not know as much about this majoritarian phenomenon as we do about the self-consciousness of minorities. So, I am going to present here some recent research about how white Americans view themselves in racial terms.

An Intriguing Study of "White Consciousness"

Recently, some of my political science colleagues studied various elements of "white consciousness", defined here loosely as Caucasians' self-perceptions of themselves relative to different groups of individuals; and their findings are both interesting and somewhat surprising.

Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields (both of the University of Arkansas) and Kirby Goidel (Louisiana State University) focused on whether and to what extent whites think that "our fates are linked to others like us"; and they presented their preliminary findings in a paper at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. (The authors are in the process of refining their presentation; and I will use their slightly revised material in this post.)

Their research showed that "many white respondents do perceive their fate as linked to their racial identity, that these perceptions are influenced by racial resentment, and that they are stronger in the American South."

However, contrary to expectations, they found that "racial identity clearly plays a role in both the north and South."

Maxwell, Shields, and Goidel relied on data from a national public opinion survey, the 2012 Blair Center-Clinton School Poll. By oversampling minority groups, they were able to compare "white consciousness" with the racial consciousness of African-Americans and Hispanics. They used commonly-accepted indices of multiple questions to measure the perceptions of their three groups.

The most striking aspect of their study, in my opinion, is the strange and sometimes puzzling array of findings.

For example, "white consciousness" was similar to or exceeded the racial consciousness of Blacks and Hispanics, meaning that whites perceived a shared fate at rates that parallel other groups. Also, while racial resentment may have helped predict "white consciousness", this phenomenon was not simply another name for racial resentment; nor was it unique to the South.

To generalize, Maxwell, Shields, and Goidel demonstrated convincingly the reality and complexity of this element of white identity:

We find that whites do, in fact, perceive that their fates are linked... Moreover, it is not poor and less educated whites who are more likely to perceive their fates as linked but better educated and higher income whites. Nor are white perceptions tied to racial resentment. Instead, white consciousness appears to mostly strongly reflect racial threat (white perceptions of racial consciousness among African-Americans), suggesting that white consciousness indicates a more general pattern toward group-centric thinking. Racial contact reduces these white perceptions; but its effect is contingent on racial resentment. Moreover, white consciousness is a consistent and important predictor of racial identity and racial affect.

Additionally, they found some curious wrinkles":

The interesting differences are really more in the detail and the nuance and how different variables work differently across models. Our most interesting difference specific to white consciousness concerns the interaction between contact and racial resentment. While the effect seems to work in the same direction, it is not statistically significant in our model for the South. This may reflect the fact that racial resentment and African-American contact are both higher in southern states (and significantly so).

Conclusions

At the risk of over-simplifying the work of my colleagues, I consider the following findings most interesting:

(1) Whites did exhibit "white consciousness" in their racial identity, along with some interesting patterns related to demography and feelings of racial resentment.

(2) When considering the regional distinctiveness of "white consciousness," there were fewer differences than might have been expected; and this aspect of racial identity clearly played a role in both the South and non-South.

Commentary

Racism has proven to be a continuing and confounding reality in the story of America. Efforts such as this study help us realize that there is still much to learn and "fix" in American democracy.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern Politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every-other-year since 1978; and it has become a "main event" for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about fifty academic institutions--participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.