Racism As A Zero-Sum Game

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A new Harvard Business School study reveals that whites believe discrimination against them is rising, and that it's more prevalent than racism toward blacks. Host Michel Martin continues the conversation about anti-white bias with the study's co-author Michael Norton and Color Blind author Tim Wise.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now we're going to hear from the author of that study we just told you about. Michael Norton is a professor at Harvard Business School. He and his co-author Samuel Sommers, a professor at Tufts, published an article that says whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. The study's authors report that 30 percent of whites surveyed believe they have been the recipient of some kind of discrimination against them. And a significant number of whites believe this problem is more prevalent than racism against blacks. Michael Norton is with us now.

And we're also joined by Tim Wise. He's a lecturer and author whose last book "Color Blind" deals with the state of race relations and affirmative-action in the U.S. and I welcome you both to the program. Thank you both so much for joining us.

TIM WISE: You bet.

MICHAEL NORTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Professor Norton, why don't I start with you. What gave you the idea for this research?

NORTON: Sam and I had been studying for a number of years the emerging norms of political correctness - this feeling that many white people have that they're not allowed to say what they're thinking or they're not quite sure how to behave in interracial situations. And we realized over time that people were sort of mistaking that feeling of oppression in those situations for actual oppression in the world. As though not being able to say what you think is in some ways similar to being actually oppressed by some system, and we wanted to try to measure that feeling that whites might be having that, of course, black people experienced in the 1950s through today. White people seem to suddenly be feeling this way and we wanted to measure it and see how strong that belief was.

MARTIN: And how strong is that belief?

NORTON: We found some good news, which is that if we asked people what racism was like in the 1950s, blacks and whites agree that racism against blacks was very high back then and there wasn't much racism against whites back then. And everyone agrees also that racism against blacks has gotten better. The problem is that black people think it's decreased a little bit and white people think in some sense it's been solved. And then the other bad news is that if you ask black people about racism against whites they almost don't know how to answer the question because they say there isn't any, there's no such thing.

White people now say, you know what? There wasn't racism against whites in the 1950s but now there is and there's so much now that in fact there's more racism against us than there is against black people.

MARTIN: In fact, you say in your piece - and we'll link to it on our website so people can read the study for themselves - we propose that whites belief about the increasing prevalence of anti-white bias reflects a view of racism as a zero-sum game. What does that mean?

NORTON: So when we asked black Americans about racism against whites and blacks they see racism against blacks as decreasing over time. So they see improvement but they don't see that as links to any increase in racism against whites. They see that things can get better for one group without necessarily coming at the expense of another group.

But when we asked whites those same questions those two questions are very linked in their minds. So to the extent that white people believe that racism against blacks has decreased, they also believe that racism against whites has increased. They really see it as kind of a fixed pie of resources, a zero-sum game. One job for a black person equals one job that a white person didn't get.

MARTIN: Now Tim Wise, you've been writing about these issues for some time from a different vantage point. You're more of what would you say, a polemicist.

WISE: Essayist.

MARTIN: Essayist, in these areas. But you're also white. I hope you don't mind my mentioning that.

WISE: On no, it's, yeah. I think it's a well-known secret.

MARTIN: It's a well-known secret that you are white also.

WISE: Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you make of this?

WISE: Well, on the one hand it's not new. I mean the fact is claims of reverse discrimination actually go all the way back to the post-Civil War era when the Supreme Court threw out the really very minor Reconstruction Act laws that were attempting to provide a modicum of opportunity for formerly enslaved persons. Justice Joseph Bradley wrote for the court in 1883, you know, that it was time for the Negro to stop being the special favorite of the law and take his place as a mere citizen, of course, overlooking that white folks had never been mere citizens, they had been the only citizens according to federal law. So white folks have a long history frankly, we do, of exaggerating the problem.

Whenever things start to get better for people of color, whether it's in the wake of Reconstruction and enslavement, whether it's the civil rights era, there are these voices who assume that if it's getting better for them it must be getting worse for us. I think the answer to it in a way, I mean, you know, you opened the piece by talking about how Colby Bohannon and this scholarship fund, you know, the very name of his organization I think gives us the psychological insight into what this is about.

He says the former majority association. What that says to me is that he and a lot of other folks, not based on objective evidence but based on the feeling that, you know, we used to have it all. We were the dominant majority and now in six or seven states, you know, the majority, minority are very much even. It can seem as though you are being targeted when really all you're being asked to do is share the bounties of opportunity that for many years you were able to assume were yours alone.

MARTIN: Professor Norton, in your piece in The New York Times on the room for debate page with your co-author, you said that there is a jockeying for stigma among groups in America today. This competition is surprising because being marginalized often equates to being powerless. Yet many whites now use their sense of marginalization as a rallying cry toward action. What about that? Why does that matter?

NORTON: So the definition of being stigmatized is no power, no resources and at this point at least in the United States there's a culture by which claiming victimhood actually gives you status over other groups. And we called it jockeying for stigma being you know what? Even if you are just being discriminated against I am being discriminated against more than you and therefore, my voice should count more and more should be done to solve my problem as oppose to your problem. It ends up being this kind of cycle of over-claiming and over-claiming stigma when again the underlying facts just don't support the idea that white people are the lowest and the least powerful group.

MARTIN: Were surprised by your findings - by your own findings?

NORTON: To be honest, we were surprised that the flip had happened. So in other words, we thought that white people would see racism against themselves on the rise. And we thought they'd see racism against blacks on the decrease. We didn't know if it would be at the point where in fact white people now think there is more racism against them then there is against black Americans, and that's what we find.

MARTIN: Tim, are you surprised by this?

WISE: Well, yeah, I'm a little surprised also by the flip. I mean for years there had, been these survey data points for example, which have certainly indicated that whites are increasingly believing this is true. I think what really has made it sort of skyrocket though, let's say from a 10-year period ago is you have a bunch of stuff happening at once. I mean one is the economic meltdown, which always, you know, creates additional anxiety. But then you have a president of color who challenges I think by virtue of his very existence, a lot of white folk's assumptions about what the leader should look like; the demographic shift, which I believe a lot of white Americans who, you know, been able to just sort of ignore that aren't anymore.

Even small towns are beginning in many ways to shift demographically; and you've got a popular culture that's thoroughly multicultural so that just about, you know, the ability of white America to take for granted that we are the norm. That when you think all-American boy, all-American girl you think one of us, that is starting to be challenged. All of those things coming together at once creates sort of a perfect storm of white anxiety and folks begin to feel quite seriously that they're actually being oppressed, whereas, you know, even 10 years ago that wouldn't have been nearly as prevalent.

MARTIN: I'm not sure either of you is responsible for a cause of action. But based on your both of you, your belief that, based on reporting and analysis that there is a dissonance between the facts and how they are perceived by a lot of people, what do we do? Mr. Wise, you want to start? What do you do about that?

WISE: Sure. Well, I think we have to craft and to deliver a counter narrative that does two things at once, and they're not incompatible. One, is to acknowledge the very real pain and economic insecurity that millions of folks, including millions of white folks are really experiencing. But also then secondly, connecting that insecurity to the insecurities that frankly folks of color have always felt. You know, had we decided as a culture that double-digit unemployment was unacceptable when it was only people of color who were experiencing it, which they have been experiencing that year in and year out since we started keeping data, then perhaps we would've done something as a nation to not allow that to happen to white folks. But we didn't think it was a crisis when on only "those people," quote/unquote, were suffering.

Fast-forward 15 years later and you know what? It does. So what it says to me is we've got to craft a narrative that says yes, you're in pain. But here's the irony, you're in pain precisely because these other folks were and we didn't pay close enough attention to the details then. And I think if we did that we'd be able to build real political alliances between those white folks who are justifiably insecure and anxious and worried and the people of color who know exactly what that's about and always have.

MARTIN: Michael Norton, final thought?

NORTON: I think that also relates to this issue of shifting the reference point from are we talking about competition between two groups or are we talking about Americans having a better life overall? Or are we talking about a case where things are equal and we're fighting against each other or where there is a current disparity between outcomes and we're trying to address those as well? Trying to shift people's belief toward accurate beliefs about the state of things right now might change some of these debates that people are having.

MARTIN: Michael Norton, he's an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. We caught up with him at the studios there. And if you want to read his piece in its entirety - and we hope you will - we'll link to it our website. Go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Also with us, Tim Wise is a lecturer and author. His latest book was called "Color Blind." We caught up with him in Nashville. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

WISE: Thank you.

NORTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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