Although often described as an outcome, inequality is probably better understood as a process — one sustained largely as a result of how systems and institutions are structured and reproduced, and the ways in which people act and interact within them across time. Racialized inequality occurs when there is systemic variance in how people engage with members of one ethnic or racial group vs. another.
Interestingly, research suggests that liberals may actually be more sensitive to racial and ethnic differences than conservatives, and therefore may be more likely to treat people differently on the basis of their race or ethnicity (e.g. here, here).
Liberals and conservatives would likely converge in their assumptions about specifically how liberals treat minorities differently than whites – namely, it is assumed liberals favor minorities over their fellow whites. Contemporary polling would seem to reinforce this assumption: highly-educated white liberals have come to be more ‘woke’ in their racial attitudes than the average black or Hispanic – even to the point of expressing more positive sentiments towards racial or ethnic ‘others’ over their fellow whites; they are the only U.S. racial or ethnic subgroup to exhibit such tendencies.
Yet, as sociologists Jerolmack and Khan noted, talk is cheap: how people respond to surveys – or even how they vote – may not indicate anything about how they act and interact in the world. A new paper highlights the importance of this insight in comparing the racial attitudes vs. racialized actions of contemporary white elites (here, we are drawing on Richard Reeves’ definition of ‘elite’: the top 20% of U.S. income earners) — who, relative to other whites, tend to be much more highly-educated and more socially and culturally liberal.
The Pitfalls of Psychologizing Race
Race is socially constructed. Racism is a function of social behaviors and relations. Racist ideologies are not the cause of systems, institutions or actions that perpetuate or exacerbate racialized inequality – they are produced to justify and legitimize these states of affairs. In other words, the actual practice of racialized group-making and inter-group competition is more fundamental than the popular discourses and ideologies which frame them.
Yet many contemporary antiracist efforts — especially among highly-educated, relatively well-off, white liberals – focus primarily on ‘hearts and minds’ (beliefs, intentions, attitudes, feelings), symbols and rhetoric. Antiracism has largely shifted from a sociological project (focused on institutions, behaviors, the distribution of resources, etc.) into a psychological one. Even sociologists seem to be increasingly adopting psychologized frameworks for understanding and advancing antiracism.
This approach, and the tactics that emerged from it, have proven ineffective in practice — even counterproductive (here, here, here, here, here, here, here for more on this point). Why? Because the assumptions they are based upon are false.
It is assumed that the primary obstacle to racial justice is a lack of awareness about the challenges people of color face, or the comparative advantages whites are presented with, or one’s own culpability in perpetuating racialized dynamics, etc. It is further assumed that if people commit to antiracism in principle (as a result of being made aware of the realities of racialized injustice), they will cease inequality-generating behaviors in practice. Therefore, winning ‘hearts and minds’ will translate into changes in actions and interactions, or to reallocations of resources and opportunities.
The reality of the situation is far more disturbing. In fact, it turns out that the whites who are most likely to condemn ideological racism (people saying, thinking, feeling the ‘wrong’ things about minorities) also happen to be the ones who benefit the most from what sociologists describe as systemic or institutionalized racism. The people who express the most outrage over racialized inequality happen to also be the people who benefit most from this inequality and actively perpetuate it. Those most likely to rail about white privilege happen to be the most privileged whites of all. The first two sections of the paper make this case.
Next, an exploration of why this is. How is it that antiracist intentions are transformed into ‘benevolently racist’ actions? A phenomenon known as ‘moral credentialing’ may be a big part of the issue:
Research in the behavioral sciences suggests that when whites explicitly denounce racism, or affirm their commitment to racial equality, they often grow more likely to act in ways that favor other whites – yet simultaneously grow more confident that their actions were not racially-motivated. A similar effect holds when they observe others from their ‘in-group’ making gestures towards antiracism: it convinces them not only that their peers are egalitarians, but that their own actions and interactions are non-biased as well. Conversely, blaming or denouncing ‘others’ for a particular moral failing reduces one’s own sense of guilt for that same moral failing.
Hence, in an environment where those who benefit immensely from racialized inequality go around denouncing racism to one another constantly — painting themselves as staunch advocates for racial justice — it would become almost impossible for these people to actually see the role that they or their peers play in perpetuating systemic racism. And in part for this reason, these same whites would promote racialized inequality all the more, while feeling incredibly self-righteous about their egalitarianism.
More Dangers of Racialized “Moral Grandstanding”
Performative antiracism has become something of a status symbol among urban, highly-educated elites — a signal to institutional gatekeepers that one deserves to be among other ‘enlightened’ souls. In the early 19th century, there was a concept of noblesse oblige: aristocrats demonstrated that they were (morally) worthy of their privilege by performatively recognizing that they were privileged, and then pledging to use that privilege for the benefit of all – especially the less fortunate. Today, elites demonstrate their worthiness – that they belong among the Google, New York Times and Ivy League crowd – by rhetorically (purely rhetorically) disassociating from their privilege. That is, not only is performative antiracism a means through which elites conceal their own role in perpetuating racialized inequality (including from themselves), it is also a social currency used to demonstrate one’s elite status – at great cost:
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander highlights how elites turn poor and working class whites and people of color against one another – thereby preventing the emergence of any transracial, class-based, solidarity that could threaten their own financial interests or social position. Her analysis focused on tactics most prevalent on (albeit far from exclusive to) the right, such as scapegoating minorities for social problems or encouraging a distinctly white conception of American nationalism. However, performative antiracism is another way upper-middle class and wealthy whites (particularly those aligned with the left) turn whites and people of color from the lower quintiles against one another, intentionally or not:
By appearing almost-exclusively concerned with minority groups and their alleged needs or preferences (despite being often oblivious to minorities’ actual priorities and concerns), by constantly denigrating whiteness and villainizing poor and working-class whites, elite ‘antiracists’ often end up reaffirming racist narratives – i.e. middle and working-class whites’ values, interests, culture and way of life are under siege; minorities will rise up at their expense, etc. The increased prevalence of these perceptions has been intimately, and perhaps causally, related to the contemporary resurgence of white identity politics.
Nor is it lost on whites from the lower quintiles that the people calling on them to acknowledge their privilege, etc. happen to be benefitting far more from ‘the system’ than they are, but do not seem to be making any significant sacrifices for the sake of racial justice themselves. Consequently, antiracism often appears to be little more than a cynical power grab (as opposed to an authentic attempt to assist the disadvantaged). For instance, according to a recent Cato Institute survey, most (61% of) Americans believe “people often call others racist or sexist to avoid having to debate with them.”
The perception that race / racism is primarily being used as a political cudgel by social elites to silence ‘people like them’ turns poor, working-class and middle-class whites against civil rights, civil liberties, minorities and the left more broadly. It also drives support for reactionary political leaders like Trump. As former (Trump) White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon put it: “The longer [Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ‘em. I want them to talk about racism every day”; or, “Race-identity politics… Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming.”
The Importance of White Liberal Elites
This is not a call out. That is, the point of the essay is emphatically not to bash white liberal elites as hypocrites. I have no doubts about their sincerity or good intentions. The point of the essay is to emphasize that, ultimately, one’s sincerity or intentions are (in and of themselves) simply irrelevant to addressing the issue of racialized inequality.
Systemic racism is not a product (outcome) of people holding the ‘wrong’ beliefs or feelings. It is a function of behavioral patterns — and (unjust) allocations of resources and opportunities — that systematically advantage some, and disadvantage others, within particular contexts. It persists because it is enacted moment to moment, situation to situation. It could be ended if those who currently perpetuate it committed themselves to playing a different role instead – not merely through their words or feelings, but with action.
Given the current concentrations of financial and cultural capital — and ongoing demographic trends — it is well within the power of liberal, urban, higher-SES whites to significantly upend the racial distribution of wealth in the United States purely through how they allocate their own resources, manage the organizations and institutions they are embedded in, and leverage the city and state governments which Democrats firmly control. That is, precisely because relatively well-off urban and suburban coastal whites play such a big role in perpetuating racialized inequality, they are in the best position to address that inequality. They have been a big part of the problem up to now, despite their ostensibly racial egalitarian commitments. They can be a major part of the solution instead.
How? Rather than expropriating blame to others, or adopting introspective and psychologized approaches to problems that are fundamentally social in nature, those sincerely committed to antiracism can take concrete steps in the real world – actions which require no legislation or coercion of naysayers, just a willingness to personally make sacrifices for the sake of racial justice.
The rest of the paper fleshes out this idea with specific examples and suggestions. Those who have ears, let them hear.
Full paper: al-Gharbi, Musa (2019). “Resistance as Sacrifice: Towards an Ascetic Antiracism.” Sociological Forum. DOI: 10.1111/socf.12544
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and managing editor at Heterodox Academy.