White Liberals Adopt More Progressive Positions On Race Some Democratic candidates have called President Trump a white supremacist. They're in sync with a base of white liberals who have dramatically shifted their attitudes on race in recent years.

White Liberals Adopt More Progressive Positions On Race

White Liberals Adopt More Progressive Positions On Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/762988657/762988661" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Some Democratic candidates have called President Trump a white supremacist. They're in sync with a base of white liberals who have dramatically shifted their attitudes on race in recent years.


Democratic presidential candidates have been talking much more about racial inequality and discrimination than in past campaigns, laying out policies to address those issues, frequently noting how critical African American support is for the party. They may also be tapping into a more recent dynamic on the left. White liberals have dramatically shifted their attitudes on race, adopting far more progressive positions on diversity in some cases, even more so than black and brown voters. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Take a listen to a few of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates - Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke.


BERNIE SANDERS: We have a president who is a racist, who is a xenophobe, who appeals and is trying to appeal to white nationalism.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Now, when white supremacists call Donald Trump one of their own, I tend to believe them.

BETO O'ROURKE: So as president, we've got to make sure we make our No. 1 law enforcement priority combating white nationalism and white supremacy in this country.

KHALID: These candidates have not been shy to call President Trump a white supremacist. And that resonates with many Democratic primary voters.

JEROMY BROWN: If the shoe fits, then say it. And the shoe fits him. Why should he be excused from that label?

KHALID: That's Jeromy Brown. I met him last month in Iowa as he waited in a line to get a photo with Elizabeth Warren. White supremacy is a phrase we hardly ever heard in our politics a few years ago, so I asked Brown to define exactly what it means. He put it in the words you would imagine a white supremacist using.

BROWN: The whites are the real people. We're the ones that matter. We're the - you know, the other people are the mud people. They're the people that don't count. They're not the same as us. We're the ones with a real birthright claim on this land, even though that makes no sense whatsoever.

KHALID: The way Brown derisively uses the words we and us about other white people caught my ear. Political scientists who study race and polarization say they've noticed something unusual in the last few years. Most racial groups feel more warmly about their own race compared to other races. That's true for every group except white liberals. In fact, 20% of white liberals actually expressed outright negativity toward other white people.

At a Beto O'Rourke rally in Iowa a few weeks ago, I noticed Polly Antonelli in the crowd. She was tearing up as the former congressman recounted a story from the El Paso shooting. The suspected shooter there told police he was targeting Mexicans. Antonelli says it's highly appropriate to call Trump a white supremacist.

POLLY ANTONELLI: Calling him out on his crap - it might sound divisive, but it's a reaction to his divisiveness.

KHALID: For a lot of white liberals, race and racism became more salient political issues because of Trump. But the shift in how white liberals think about race actually predates the president's victory. Beginning around 2011, polls show white liberals began to feel far more convinced that discrimination has negatively impacted African Americans. Zach Goldberg is a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University who's been studying all of this.

ZACH GOLDBERG: The shift has been so dramatic that by 2016, at least in the data, the white liberals have caught up with blacks in giving or attributing inequality to discrimination.

KHALID: On the question of whether diversity has a positive impact on the country, a greater share of white Democrats agreed with this idea than black or Hispanic Democrats. What Goldberg has found is not just an isolated blip on one issue; it's a seismic transformation.

GOLDBERG: The white liberals of 2016, or even 2014, are very distinguishable from the white liberals of the 1970s and the 1980s and the 1990s.

KHALID: An increasing number of white liberals now think the criminal justice system is biased against black people. An increasing number of white liberals say the police are more likely to use deadly force against black people. And more white Democrats say the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism rather than Southern pride. The reverse was true in the year 2000.

And so you might think, well, maybe the white Democrats who disagreed have just abandoned the party. But even though the makeup of the parties has changed, researchers say that's not the only explanation.

GOLDBERG: Their exposure to injustice and inequality has been heightened because of the Internet.

KHALID: Goldberg says he noticed an abrupt change around the time mainstream news outlets started picking up on social media accounts of fatal police shootings of black men. Brown University researcher Drew Engelhardt agrees. He says that's why there has not been as large of a shift among people of color on these survey questions. They didn't need the social media videos to know what was already happening in their communities.

DREW ENGELHARDT: This kind of renewed attention to discrimination is new and novel for white Democrats and liberals.

KHALID: These researchers also told me that when white liberals take on some of these progressive positions, they're virtue signaling. They want to prove that they're allies of minority groups and feel the need to do that more in the Trump era.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.