Cepeda column: Don’t resort to stereotyping other races
CHICAGO — There’s been a bit of a bumper crop of stories about white anxiety in the past week.
First, a July 30 op-ed in The New York Times, “How to Talk to a Racist,” suggested that the label does little to soothe bigoted attitudes, so people should check their assumptions before making such an indictment.
And the next day, a longform article, “White, and in the minority,” ran in The Washington Post, chronicling the plight of two young white workers who feel isolated at their jobs because they are the only non-Spanish speakers.
Invariably, articles and op-ed pieces like these are intended to humanize groups — largely rural, middle- to working-class whites — who are increasingly being portrayed as unapologetic racists in the media. The members of the groups are considered racist whether they call the police on black people who are lawfully minding their own business or support political candidates who advocate for white supremacy.
But these sorts of pieces usually fall short of the mission to make people with racial anxiety relatable — and instead reinforce some of the very tropes that put many on edge.
For instance, the Post article included this nugget: “Studies have shown how some whites, who are dying faster than they’re being born in 26 states, react when they become aware of a tectonic demographic shift that will, with little historic precedent, reconfigure the racial and ethnic geography of an entire country.”
This language reinforces the extinction-level threat that some white people feel when demographic data are presented as “tsunamis” that result in “the browning of America.”
In a 2017 New York Times essay, sociologist Herbert J. Gans indicted the U.S. Census Bureau and its “majority-minority” forecasting for its role in ratcheting up the demographic hysteria. “These numbers have become a handy data point for whites fearful that they are being threatened and overwhelmed by a growing tide of darker-skinned people,” Gans wrote. “In this way, the census may have unintentionally increased white racism, thereby justifying the long-standing Republican strategy of turning itself into a whites-first party.”
Using demographic data as a weapon harms everyone, whether it’s to say “Ha-ha, brown people are going to be the majority soon and then white people will see what it’s like,” or “We whites have to protect our culture and our heritage against all these brown people and immigrants.”
It’s also harmful to make broad generalizations about any demographic group based on the experience of a tiny handful of individuals who are used to exemplify a larger trend.
Some can appreciate a white writer in the New York Times trying to be level-headed by saying, “When you encounter a person who believes he’s merely honoring his ancestors by driving a car with an image of the Confederate battle flag on the tag, … stop for just a moment and take a breath.”
But when I see the pickup truck that rolls down my street flying giant U.S. and Confederate flags, I take a breath, alright — because I fear for my safety.
Either way, race relations are tricky right now, and analyzing them cannot be left to anecdote or archetype.
There is a rigorous, well-designed study on the subject by a group of researchers from the University of Illinois, Coventry University and Columbia University. They visited five cities — New York; Phoenix; Birmingham, Alabama; Dayton, Ohio; and Tacoma, Washington — between August 2016 and March 2017 to ask more than 400 people who identified as “white working class” for their views on identity, immigration, race and change.
The study concluded that “working-class Americans” are far more diverse than they’ve been described. They are often college-educated and embrace the concept of racial diversity, usually citing people of different races in their own families and communities.
Yes, many expressed concerns about undocumented immigrants and people of color receiving preferential treatment for jobs, services or benefits, as whites’ quality of life declines. But not all identified as Donald Trump supporters, and many expressed genuine conflict about both the 2016 presidential candidates.
The point here is that our perceptions about any racial groups shouldn’t be shaped by people or organizations who seek to demonize, valorize or elicit fear or pity about members of certain races.
There are nonpartisan, not-for-profit organizations, such as the Pew Research Center and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, that do demographic research designed to inform, not inflame.
Look to their work and then make up your own mind about how different racial and ethnic groups see the issues you care about.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.