Anti-White Bias On The Rise?
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Back in March, we told you about a young man at Texas State University who told us he was setting up a college scholarship program for white males like himself who he believed were at a disadvantage when it comes to getting college scholarship money. His name was Colby Bohannan and he called his group The Former Majority Association for Equality. You can hear my original conversation with Colby Bohannan by going to our website. Just go to the Programs tab at NPR.org and click on TELL ME MORE.
Well, earlier this month, Mr. Bohannon made good on that promise and announced that the group has raised $18,000 for five scholarships. The story has gotten a lot of traction, particularly when it was announced that one of Bohannan's Army buddies, who is African-American, has agreed to hand out the awards. But the core issue is Mr. Bohannan's belief that white people are somehow at a disadvantage when it comes to opportunities in this country.
Well, a new study out of Harvard Business School attests to the view. It was recently published in a journal called Perspectives On Psychological Science. Business school professor Michael Norton and his co-author Samuel Sommers says that white people believe that they are, in fact, more likely to be victims of discrimination than black people now. We're going to hear from Professor Norton in a minute. But first, for perspective, we've called upon Abigail Thernstrom. She is the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
She's a Republican member of that bipartisan commission. In her varied career, she's been a state education official, a fellow at a conservative think tank and she's written a number of critically acclaimed books about race and ethnicity. And she's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM: Hey, Michel, I'm delighted to be here.
MARTIN: Now, you've already reacted to the study. You wrote a piece as part of a collection of essays in the New York Times about that particular study. You said this is not new news.
THERNSTROM: Oh, it's not new news at all. I mean, what they've found out is that there is a high level of white resentment against racial preferences, which some people call affirmative action. I prefer the term racial preferences because I think it's more accurate. And whites don't much like it when at a selective, elite university you've got a certain number of seats set aside for blacks and Hispanics and they are admitting minority students - non-Asian minority students, I should say - Asians are never privileged - by standards different than those applied to Asians than whites and that violates some core values of actually a majority of Americans.
MARTIN: When we talk about racism, do you think that whites, by and large, and - let's say blacks, by and large, because that's probably mainly who we're talking about...
MARTIN: ...are seeing and talking about different things. Do you think whites are talking about racial preferences? Because I'm not sure that that's what black people mean when they say, is racism - has racism gone away? I don't think they're talking about policies, per se.
THERNSTROM: No. When we talk about racism in general, we talk about a bias against people on the basis of ascribed characteristics: color, in some cases natural origin if you're talking about Hispanics and so forth. But they're not talking about private feelings of antagonism in their article towards whites. I mean, nobody thinks that whites are the victims of the kind of racist sentiment that has been historically so prevalent in American history, but has so diminished by this time what they - the only thing they can be talking about is public policy.
MARTIN: Well, now, see- but I'm not sure that that's - I think that that's - I guess what I'm more interested in is what is your opinion about whether a majority of whites actually think that they are the targets of animus of feelings that attend to African-Americans or black people who feel that private attitudes, which then translate into public behavior which disadvantage them on a conscious and unconscious level. Do you think that the majority of whites feel that way, that there is that kind of animus directed toward them?
THERNSTROM: No way. No way. That targets of discrimination, feeling that racial slurs against whites, I mean, that is a ridiculous notion. I mean, they were asked, not about racism. They were asked about discrimination - two very different things. And, you know, the first thing whites think of is, well, wait a minute. They aren't creating a level playing field with public policy. They are privileging to minority groups. And that is the only possible source of white resentment.
MARTIN: Well, what if it's irrational? I think the authors can speak for themselves in a minute. But one of the argument is that some people, perhaps to many people - I don't know how many - translate no longer being advantaged to being discriminated against.
THERNSTROM: Well, first place, being discriminated against is different then being the target of racism, and that is really an important distinction. Now being discriminated against, what in private life in, so, you know, I mean if you take as your classic model of racism, the Jim Crow South, do whites think that they have somehow become blacks in the equivalent of the Jim Crow South? No. Of course not.
One of the things that I thought was interesting about this study is both whites and blacks agree on the degree of racial progress in this society. Very nice agreement that, yeah, the level of white racism towards blacks has gone, oh, in my lifetime, it's been a remarkable change and something to celebrate. And so, now they say, oh, well, wait a minute. We've got this racism towards whites. That's ridiculous.
MARTIN: Is there something that there is important to discuss here in terms of the feelings that white people may have about being discriminated against? I know that you feel affirmative action racial preferences is an ongoing sore point to the degree that it still exists as policy. But more broadly, I know that these are issues that have come before you at the commission.
MARTIN: Is there a broader conversation you think we should hear about it?
THERNSTROM: Yeah, there's a broader conversation. I mean these preferences, race-based preferences have to go. But they're not going to go till we no longer have such radical disparities in the results of testing of every sort, whether it's SATs or LSATs, medical exams, just name it, you have got radical disparities. We have got to do something about American education. And we just keep spinning our wheels so that we're not educating kids. That's the place to create a level playing field and when we create a level playing field the whole issue of preferences will disappear.
MARTIN: Abigail Thernstrom is the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the author of many books, as we said. Most recently of "Voting Rights-And Wrongs: Racially Fair Elections." And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Abigail Thernstrom, thank you so much for joining us.
THERNSTROM: Oh, thank you for having me.
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