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Analysis | White people are not the victims in discussions about historical racism – The Washington Post

During a radio interview last week, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was asked why Democrats “always rely on racism” in politics.
“The Democrats have moved from anti-Black racism to anti-White racism,” Gingrich asserted. “There’s something in the DNA of the Democratic Party that requires it to be fascinated with skin color. It may go back to the fact that it was the party of slavery. It was the party of segregation. It’s kind of hard to know.”
This is a remarkable claim for anyone to make, much less one of the more powerful Republicans in recent history and a former legislator from Georgia. Democrats focus on race, Gingrich says, not only from a sense of historical partisan guilt but to oppress White Americans.
One of the reasons Gingrich was so powerful and effective was his ability to frame political debates. Here he’s framing one of the central undercurrents to the current political discussion. The question centered on the results of the gubernatorial race in Virginia, a race that itself included a focus on the overlap of education and race. So Gingrich ties it together: The new attention being paid by many on the political left to racism, particularly historical racism, is not an effort to reconsider institutional power or even a push for increased accuracy in understanding America’s past. It is, instead, an effort to put down White Americans.
We have noted before that race was at the heart of Donald Trump’s political success in 2016. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in March 2016 found that voters who most agreed that “Whites are losing out to non-Whites” were more likely to support Trump than those expressing economic insecurity. After the election that year, analyses determined that even the education-level split seen in the results overlapped with race and that race was more important to voters’ picks in 2016 than in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. Trump voters were more likely to express concern about “reverse racism” — the anti-White racism to which Gingrich refers — and to see Whites as facing significant discrimination.
Even in recent polling conducted by YouGov for the Economist, Republicans are more likely to say that native-born citizens face a great deal of discrimination than they are to say the same of African Americans. Republicans are nearly three times as likely to say that Christians face a great deal of discrimination as they are to say the same of Blacks.
The renewed focus on historical racism that accompanied the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and things like the New York Times’s “1619 Project” has probably contributed to this sense that Whites are embattled. It’s strange that it should. There’s an obvious distinction between some White people explicitly or implicitly instituted racist policies and systems and White people today are racist. There’s even a distinction between there exist systems that by design or function benefit Whites and Whites are racist. But such claims are often hard to delineate and nothing if not complicated, so when sharpened for political purposes they can lose subtlety — both on the left and right.
It’s hard to measure this, but I have the sense that many Americans still see the fight against racism as being one purely centered on overt discrimination such as segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains. Those symbols of explicit racism have been uprooted, part of a simplified narrative about race culminating with Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech about seeing past color. So discussions about more subtle forms of racism are seen not as a more nuanced exploration of how racism manifests but often as an attempt to keep litigating race for political purposes. Claiming that there is racism embedded in the United States is not understood as an analysis of how power works in this country but as a way to accuse Whites of racism.
So there’s pushback. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake highlighted a new poll from Monmouth University in which a third of Republicans said they strongly disapproved of teaching the history of racism in schools at all. This isn’t just an objection to discussion of how racism is still threaded into American culture; it’s an objection to teaching how it once was explicit.
I’ll note that recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than three-quarters of Republicans indicated that they supported history curriculums that addressed both “our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country.” Slavery and explicit institutional racism obviously should be included among the country’s worst mistakes, so there’s clearly some blurriness between those two poll results.
The challenge is that the nuance is politically useful. There’s utility in casting Democratic rhetoric as anti-White and in bolstering the sense of aggrievement among conservative White Christians. The overlap between party and race is often explicit; the Democratic Party was more diverse in 1996 than the Republican Party is today. There’s an overlap of “Black” and “Democrat” (and a more-modest overlap of “White” and “Republican”) that tends to inject partisanship into discussions of race anyway.
Gingrich and people such as Tucker Carlson are probably sincere to a large extent in their insistence that the left is trying to leverage race to its benefit, and certainly some on the left do try to do so. But that is different than rejecting a discussion of historical or institutional racism as biased against White people, much less the right. That is different than claiming that Whites are, therefore, the victims of reverse racism.
The reason that new attention is being paid to the historical manifestations of racism and their persistence in existing systems within the United States is largely because so little attention was paid to them in the past. It’s probably the case that the increased diversity seen in the United States is helping to spur that focus, even as that growing diversity is increasing a sense of being embattled among the country’s White majority. So it gets lumped together: Whites, particularly on the right, see these inscrutable discussions about the (as they see it) largely solved problem of racism as targeting them specifically as White people, in part because political actors find it useful to do so. And a backlash ensues, including rejection of teaching uncomfortable history (efforts that often get cast as blaming Whites or insisting that Whites feel guilt for historical racism) and a focus on how they are the real victims.
Whites are not the victims of historical or systemic racism.
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