The Fear That Is Shaping American Politics

A large number of white people already believe that they suffer higher levels of discrimination than Black people and other minorities do.

Craig and Richeson write:

Organizational messages that are favorable to racial diversity have also been found to enhance the sense among whites of personal and group discrimination against them compared with race-neutral messages.

In addition, many Republican and conservative-leaning whites are convinced that as minorities become more powerful, the left coalition will become increasingly antagonistic to them. Craig and Richeson write:

This research suggests, in other words, that whites are likely to perceive more antiwhite discrimination under circumstances in which they perceive that their group’s position in society is under threat.

Nour Sami Kteily, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, emailed to say that he and Richeson have been conducting a study that asks whites how much they agree (7) or disagree (1) with statements like:

If Black Americans got to the top of the social hierarchy, they would want to stay on top and keep other groups down.


If Black Americans got to the top of the social hierarchy, they would put all of their effort toward creating a more egalitarian social system for all groups.

On average, whites fell at the midpoint but, Kteily wrote, there was

large variation associated with being Republican vs. Democrat, with Republicans being more likely to believe that Black Americans would use power to dominate. The difference is highly statistically significant.

In a December 2019 article, “Demographic change, political backlash, and challenges in the study of geography,” Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, wrote:

The relationship between diversity and reactionary politics should be considered one of the most important sociopolitical issues facing the world today — it is a near certainty that almost every developed country and many developing countries will be more diverse a generation from now than they are today.

Thus, Enos continued,

if increasing diversity affects political outcomes, the relationship can point in two consequentially different directions: toward increased diversity liberalizing politics or toward increased diversity causing a reactionary backlash.

The 2020 election of Biden combined with Democratic control of the House and Senate have contained, at least momentarily, the reactionary backlash, but a liberalized politics has not yet been secured. What are the prospects for Democrats seeking to maintain, if not strengthen, their fragile hold on power?

Opinion Debate What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that “Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike.”
  • The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
  • Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, writes that “the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

Looking toward the next two sets of elections, Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, argued in an email that Biden will have to tread carefully if he wants to maintain winning margins for his party in 2022 and for himself in 2024:

I think much of the survey data we have seen over the past several years indicates that many whites have quite favorable attitudes toward the social welfare programs that the Democratic Party supports while they are often turned off by the party’s rhetoric and platform on the issue of race and racism.

If the Biden administration, Schaffner wrote,

can continue to deliver on popular policy programs like the American Rescue Plan and make the midterm elections a referendum on those policies rather than on discussions of racism then he may be able to hold together the coalition that helped him win in 2020.

Robert Griffin, research director of the nonpartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, wrote by email that he expects “the national environment to be worse for Democrats in 2022 than it was in 2020.”

The shift, he continued,

will almost certainly include a loss of support among white voters who — if history is any guide — will represent a larger share of the electorate in 2022 because of midterm turnout dynamics.

Griffin wrote that “it’s not obvious to me that this shift will be dependent on Biden’s ability or failure to overcome white racial resentment,” because “these midterm dynamics are pretty baked in and it would be shocking to see them defied.”

On the plus side for Democrats, Griffin noted:

The growing educational divide among white Americans does present an interesting opportunity for the Democratic Party. One of the things most people don’t appreciate is that white overrepresentation among voters is driven almost entirely by white college voters. This overrepresentation of white college voters is even greater in midterm elections. The growing educational divide among white voters — with Biden viewed much more favorably by white college voters — potentially blunts some of those midterm dynamics I described.

I asked Griffin what the prospects are for Biden to build a stronger and more durable Democratic coalition. He is doubtful:

If you had to pick one group that would do the most to solidify the democratic coalition electorally, it would be white non-college voters. They make up more than 40 percent of voters and are exceptionally well represented in the Electoral College, the House and the Senate.

Biden, Griffin continued,

improved slightly on Hillary Clinton’s margin among these voters, but it wasn’t anything massive. Given the long-term trends away from the Democratic Party among these voters, even holding onto his 2020 margins would likely represent an achievement.

Based on his actions to date, Biden clearly disagrees, and remains intent on strengthening both the white and minority side of the Democratic multiracial coalition through legislative action.

In one of the ironies of politics, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who personifies in the extreme the Democratic Party dilemma on race, ethnicity and immigration — has become a critical stumbling block to Biden’s ambition to enact a transformative agenda.

West Virginia is 92 percent white, the third highest percentage in the nation, exceeded only by Maine and Vermont. In a generation, it has undergone a virtually complete Republican realignment.