Five years ago, the conservative Charles Murray and the liberal Robert Putnam agreed on something. Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is most widely known for his co-authored book The Bell Curve. This book, together with some of his other work, has made Murray a much hated figure among liberals. The Southern Poverty Law Center has even listed him as a white nationalist extremist. Meanwhile, Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, is most widely known for his landmark book, Bowling Alone. Putnam is palatable to people on both sides of the aisle: he acted as a consultant to the last four presidents before Trump. But Putnam is a liberal.
At a panel discussion sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the two prominent scholars agreed that there is a growing set of problems within the white working class—the same social problems, in fact, that society recognized among black Americans in the 1960s and 70s: increased single motherhood, drug and alcohol addiction and rising criminality. At the time of that discussion, I didn’t believe the white working classes required any more academic consideration than they already enjoyed.
But, since then, Donald Trump has been elected. In the US, white identity now matters more than it has at any time in recent memory.
Many media outlets have documented a rise in alt-right and white nationalist groups. This appears to be primarily a gendered phenomenon: it is white men who gravitate towards such groups. In addition, scholars have begun to examine how white Americans are dealing with the changing demographics of the US. For example, in her book, White Identity Politics, Ashley Jardina shows how white racial solidarity factors into voting choices. Whites favor policies that are framed as benefitting their group, including isolationism, legacy admissions to universities and Medicare.
These trends suggest a need to study whiteness. People of color are not the only ones to encounter experiences and challenges unique to their racial groups. Just as academia—especially sociology and related disciplines—seeks to identify, explain and suggest solutions to issues associated with people of color, they should do so for whites.
Imagining a Different Kind of Whiteness Studies
There are two common ways in which white folks are used in research reports and scholarly papers.
Whiteness is sometimes used as an objective category, to compare individuals who self-identify as white with those who self-identify as members of another race. A research report, for example, might present a chart showing how white youth responded to a survey, compared to Asian youth. More in-depth analyses often use whites as a statistical point of reference. For example, a regression model (a tool often used by social scientists) might claim that when controlling for education, the effect of being white is associated with a 10% increase in income. This type of data collection is both standard and necessary. We need to know, in broad terms, how race is associated with any given outcome: just as we do for correlations involving age, gender, political affiliation or any other socio-demographic measure.
The second approach is whiteness studies. Unfortunately, what currently passes as whiteness studies is better described as anti-racism studies. This type of research employs familiar terms like white privilege, white fragility, microaggressions, etc. A search of academia.edu for whiteness studies yielded the following top three hits:
- Online Radicalization of White Women to Organized White Supremacy
“This study used digital ethnography and interviews to examine the ways white women are radicalized to organized white supremacy through popular social media platforms YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter.”
- Book Review—The Color of Love, Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman
“describes the perpetuation of racial awareness within black Brazilian families through ideas of ‘racial fluency,’ the subjective understandings of the efficacies of racial knowledge and racial resistance.”
- Reproducing Whiteness: How White Students Justify the Campus Racial Status Quo
“The purpose of this article was to examine how Whiteness functions to underwrite and maintain racially hostile campus climates.”
We need to broaden our understanding of whiteness if we are to address the issues identified by Murray, Putnam and others.
One possible approach would be to explore the experiences of white people in the cross-cutting, interdisciplinary manner that characterizes work in fields like black and Asian studies. There should also be a change in sentiment towards whites and whiteness: a move away from studying white people as problematic objects and towards an empathetic engagement with the experiences and challenges of people who identify as white.
Academics need to treat whiteness the same way they treat blackness.
There seems to be little scholarly work of this kind—with at least one notable exception: anthropologist Kirby Moss’ The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege, published sixteen years ago. In this ethnography, Moss uses interviews and observations to document the lives and experiences—the lived experiences—of poor whites. The whites in his study, from a city in the Midwest, had to navigate a social context in which their race signaled an expectation of middle-class status, while their reality was pockmarked by social dysfunction.
While all racial groups experience social dysfunction—in the form of unemployment, criminality and substance abuse, for example—Moss examines this through the experiences of these whites.
For example, he describes a woman called Denise, who married into a wealthy family. Denise owned a custom-built home in a middle-class suburb and drove a Mercedes, courtesy of her wealthy father-in-law. But Denise also worked at a minimum wage job and was cash poor. She would drive to the Department of Social Services in her Mercedes to collect her benefit check. Her lack of income was a constant embarrassment to her and her children.
Moss’ work highlights a problem mainly seen in white networks and spaces. Given where wealth clusters and given the still low rates of interracial marriage, far fewer black and Hispanic Americans will marry into wealth. Yet, Denise’s struggles are very human. I can empathize with someone on public assistance, as can many people of color. I’ve often had to navigate environments in which other people have far more resources than I do. I borrowed an old pair of name brand shoes from a friend to wear on my first day of college because I didn’t want to wear the new Walmart kicks my mother had bought me. So I feel you, Denise.
Moss’ work is emblematic of what a more empathetic approach to whiteness might produce. Such an approach would enlighten, rather than demonize. It would identify those problems more closely associated with white folks, while demonstrating our shared humanity.
A Matter of Compassion
There are segments of academia devoted to exploring the challenges facing racial minorities. They do so with empathy and compassion—viewing problematic trends and outcomes not as inherent to the groups concerned, but caused by external factors.
Consider, for example, the higher rates of street crime among young black and Hispanic males in US cities. Most black and Hispanic males do not commit crime. To identify this trend, you have to examine them as a group.
When they analyze such trends, sociologists start with certain assumptions about group-level behavior:
- Black and Hispanic males are making choices within a social, cultural and historical context. There is an opportunity structure in place, which favors some decisions over others.
- When someone commits a crime, it is the result of an individual decision. However, we consistently observe that, in certain contexts, individuals—regardless of their dispositions or talents—are more likely to make such decisions.
- These patterns are best explained as responses to external social forces, such as poverty, deprivation, cultural norms and social policies. To place the responsibility solely on individuals is victim blaming and will not solve the problem.
- The task of the sociologist is to identify and explain these external forces.
This thought process also occurs at an everyday level. Consider parents searching for a school for their child. Parents understand that, if their child attends a chaotic, low-achieving school, its opportunity structure will work against her academic development. She will have to call on enormous reserves of grit to stay focused on academics—independently of her academic ability. She will need to be unusually precocious, mature enough to resist peer pressure to engage in detrimental behaviors.
Of course, some children succeed even in such adverse circumstances. But those children are the exception. Most people understand that blaming a child for not attaining the same level of achievement as someone in a more advantageous context would be victim blaming.
Parents know that they need to identify the schools that offer the best environments for learning and place their children at such a school. Parents have a sociological understanding of their children’s academic welfare.
We should apply this same compassionate and logically justified approach to understanding the lived experiences of white folks. We cannot blame the victim when we see rising rates of drug addiction and suicide. Instead, we need to place white folks on the same plane as other racial groups and try to understand the factors that have led to these negative social outcomes.
This logic must also be applied to racism and xenophobia at the group level. If we are to be theoretically consistent, we must also view the increase in hostility towards immigrants and the growth of white nationalist groups as responses to external social forces. Just as black and Hispanic males have to navigate opportunity structures that lead to negative social outcomes, at the group level, whites are navigating structures that lead to racist and xenophobic actions.
Empathy—not demonization—should be the order of the day. Instead of seeing each instance of racism and hate crime as an example of whites behaving badly, we should take the same approach we apply to youth of color and seek to understand how their environment made this a viable option.
Given how much is at stake—increasing rates of substance abuse, more dysfunctional families, more young white males affiliating themselves with alt-right tribes—we urgently need to address these issues with same degree of compassion with which we address issues related to people of color. Anything else would be immoral.
Possible Right-Wing Objections
Is this how colleges and universities should be spending their time? This is too political.
All research involves a degree of politics. The decision to fund a research project is often the result of a public discussion about what problems need to be solved and how much money should be allocated to them. The conclusions of research impact different groups in different ways. For example, a disease-resistant strain of rice may be hailed as a breakthrough in some circles and, in others, lamented as a further encroachment of genetically modified foods into our diets.
Social science is no exception. The study of a social group can and will be political: that’s the nature of twenty-first century academia.
Isn’t white an arbitrary category? Why can’t we focus on people as individuals?
This is a common, and not unreasonable, question. Indeed, research suggests that, for most white folks, their race is not an important aspect of their existence. However, at a group level, where we can observe trends, knowing someone’s race can help predict his views on political issues, choice of residence, cultural preferences, etc. If a white heroin user is asked whether her race played a part in her addiction, she will say no. However, a 2017 study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has shown that heroin use has risen most dramatically among males, people of little education, and whites. Moreover, numerous studies point to the increasing salience of whiteness in the minds of white people. Amid changing demographics, whites are beginning to acknowledge their racial category and act in group-based ways. (For an exploration of this phenomenon, see Linda Martín Alcoff’s book The Future of Whiteness.)
A Possible Centrist Objection
Isn’t this just grievance studies for white people?
Yes, there are grievances here. But I prefer not to belittle the issues associated with whites, or research that addresses those issues, by reducing them to grievances. Good research will both identify the problems involved, and find instances in which individuals are overcoming those problems. For example, we might research the ways in which whites in Appalachia (a iconic location of white poverty) are facilitating economic development.
Possible Left-Wing Objections
Marginalized and historically disadvantaged groups should garner our attention, not privileged whites.
Sociology and related fields already focus on marginalized and disadvantaged groups. Within such groups, we see the pernicious impacts of external forces on people’s lives. One reason to study the experiences of Hispanics is that Hispanics have lived in different environments from other racial groups—environments not conducive to achievement within a capitalist society.
We need not define problems, as we did in the immediate post-Civil Rights era, in terms of access to opportunity and overt discrimination. Even middle class people are having to negotiate rapid social and cultural changes in their neighborhoods—a problem worthy of sociological analysis. If demographic changes continue and whites as a group share more of their political power and economic resources with non-whites, the advantaged–disadvantaged schema we currently use will become obsolete. So, the academy can study whiteness now—while we can be proactive—or later, when we will be relegated to being reactive.
Wouldn’t a focus on whiteness produce a bunch of white nationalists and other alt-right types?
This seems highly unlikely. Consider the type of person who would teach such a class and the academic environment in which the course would be taught. Such a course would probably cover demographic trends, social problems and lived experiences. It would ground whiteness in its social context, showing that all individuals must engage with adversity. Far from producing a sense of uniqueness or superiority, it might engender a sense of unity between whites and other racial groups.
Isn’t this a get-out-of-jail-free card for racists?
An analysis of the causes of group-level patterns does not exempt anyone from responsibility for bad behavior. Just like the black male who has committed a crime, or the child who drops out of the chaotic school, the racist must suffer the consequences of his behavior.
The Importance of Whiteness Studies
Advocating the study of whiteness at a time when front-page headlines are littered with instances of police brutality, barbecue Beckys and families separated at the border may seem naïve or futile. Moreover, I am aware that there are bad actors, who might see this as a way to grow white nationalist support.
But the need to understand the social issues unique to whites will only become more pressing in the years to come. In the worst-case scenario, we may have to produce scholarship that is not proactive, but simply an ex post facto rearguard action—after many homes have been destroyed by chronic poverty; right-wing groups have committed violence against racial minorities; and many young people’s lives have been ravaged by substance abuse.
The time to start talking about this is now.