White’s Racial Attitudes Matter!

I often hear Black people say, “I don’t care how White people feel about me as long as they can’t discriminate against me.” This attitude suggests that the way to combat racial discrimination is not to confront White people about their racism; rather, the solution is to pass and vigorously enforce anti-discrimination laws. I think these people are wrong. White's racial attitudes, not those held by people of color, play the dominant role in shaping public policy in American society.

During the 1960s, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law some of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the history of the country: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Nearly 50 years later, with the support of many White Americans who believe that racial discrimination against people of color is a thing of the past and that White people are now the real victims of discrimination, many of these basic rights are under attack.

The older I get, the more things become clearer to me about America: racism is permanent, and the racial attitudes of White Americans matter.

Racism is not dead; it simply disguises itself in the race-neutral language of color-blindness.

Sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, argues that “Whites have developed powerful explanations – which have ultimately become justifications – for contemporary racial inequality that exculpates them from any responsibility for the status of people of color.” He calls this ideology “color-blind racism.” According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blindness is an important political and ideological tool used by Whites to explain racial inequality and maintain the racial status quo without sounding like a racist. “Shielded by color-blindness, Whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of “reverse racism.”

According to Bonilla-Silva, color-blind racism has four key frames: minimization of racism; abstract liberalism; naturalization; and cultural racism. The minimization of racism frame is used to portray discrimination as a thing of the past. (“Blacks can move to any community they can afford” or “I don’t think this is about race; rather, I think it’s about class.”) Abstract liberalism is a frame that allows Whites to use ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g., meritocracy, equal opportunity), and economic liberalism (e.g., privatization, market choices) in an abstract manner to deal with race related issues. The naturalization frame allows Whites to explain away racial problems as being the product of the way things “naturally occur.” For example, “neighborhoods are segregated because it’s natural to gravitate toward people like you.” The frame of cultural racism utilizes culturally-based explanations, such as “Blacks and Latinos do not work as hard as Whites” to explain lingering racial inequality.

Bonilla-Silva’s work shows us that White’s racial attitudes play a significant role in shaping contemporary racial inequality. Social scientist need to pay much more attention to individual racial attitudes. I say this because, I believe there is a strong congruence between white’s racial attitudes and public policy in our country. Especially troubling to me is the view held by many Whites that Black pathology, not systemic racism, is at the root of racial and economic inequality in American society. The view that Black people are not normal, that they are a defective race of people, informs the average White person’s opposition to social welfare laws, influences their opposition to housing and school desegregation policies, shapes their support for public policies that have led to the over-policing of Black communities, the militarization of local police and produced the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration we see today, and affects their decision to vote for reactionary right-wing White politicians.

White’s racial attitudes matter!


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