Identity politics– white people style

Really nice piece from Thomas Edsall last week drawing from across an array of Political Science sources to take a look at Trump and white identity politics.  Well worth reading it all.  Some highlights:

White voters for whom racial identity is important include a minority faction of white supremacists, but as a whole they constitute a much broader and encompassing group. In an Aug. 16 essay for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, Jardina wrote:

The whites marching on Charlottesville were only a small segment of a much larger population for whom the politics of white identity resonates. The vast majority of white Americans who feel threatened by the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazis. They are much greater in number, and far more mainstream, than the white supremacists who protested in Virginia over the weekend.

A total of 36 percent of whites described their racial identity as either “very important” (16 percent) or “extremely important” (20 percent), according to an American National Election Studies survey in January 2016. Another 25 percent said it was “moderately important.”

Careful examination of Trump’s initial support shows the key role of whiteidentity voters in Trump’s ascendance…

To explore the role of white voters for whom racial identity was especially important, three political scientists — John SidesMichael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck — analyze the ANES data in their forthcoming book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”

The survey, they write,

asked four questions that captured dimensions of white identity: the importance of white identity, how much whites are being discriminated against, the likelihood that whites are losing jobs to nonwhites, and the importance of whites working together to change laws unfair to whites. We combined those questions into a scale capturing the strength of white identity and found that it was strongly related to Republicans’ support for Donald Trump.

On the basis of that scale, the authors assembled the data illustrated by the accompanying chart, which shows that fewer than five percent of white Republicans who indicated that their racial identity was of little importance supported Trump. Among those who said their identity as whites was extremely important to them, Trump’s support reached 81 percent.

In a 2005 paper, Cara Wong, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, and Grace E. Cho, who was a graduate student in politial science at the University of Michigan at the time, found that many whites identified with their race, but “white racial identity is not politically salient.”

Wong and Cho went on, however, to make what turned out to be a crucially important point: that since

white identity is indeed unstable but easily triggered, the danger is that a demagogue could influence the salience of these identities to promote negative outgroup attitudes, link racial identification more strongly to policy preferences, and exacerbate group conflict…

In “Identity Crisis,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck write that Trump’s primary campaign

became a vehicle for a different kind of identity politics — oriented around white Americans’ feelings of marginalization in an increasingly diverse America.

The three authors describe a rapidly “growing sense of white victimhood.” They cite surveys showing that among Republicans, the perception of discrimination against whites grew from 38 percent in 2011-12 to 47 percent in January 2016.

February 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute separately asked voters whether “there is a lot of discrimination” against various groups. 43 percent of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites, compared to 27 percent of Republicans who said that there is a lot of discrimination against blacks.

Short version– it’s hard out there for a white person.  Or so many Trump voters would believe.  Now, of course, plenty of white people in America face some tough circumstances, but to suggest it is because they are white and thus discriminated against is just plain delusional.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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