Posted on September 6, 2006

White On White: Nation’s First Ever ‘Whiteness’ Survey Provides New Insight On Race

Mark Cassutt and Nina Shepherd, University of Minnesota, September 6, 2006

What whites think about their own race is the focus of a first-of-its-kind national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology. From a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households nationwide, results show that there is more recognition among white people of their own racial identity and the social privileges that come with it than was previously thought.

The assumption behind prior scholarship and diversity training initiatives was that whites overlooked their own race. “It’s sort of like having an accent,” said the study’s co-author, University of Minnesota associate professor Doug Hartmann. “For some white Americans, racial identity is so fixed, so taken for granted, that ‘race’ becomes something other people have.”

In fact, the researchers found that a majority of whites (74 percent) felt that their own racial identity was important to them, and that a similar majority were able to see prejudice and discrimination as important in explaining white advantage. At the same time, minorities are more likely to see their racial identities as important and to see structural reasons for racial disparities.

The research also suggests that awareness of white identity and awareness of white privilege are not the same. “The fact of the matter is that people claim white identity for defensive as well as progressive reasons,” said survey co-author Paul Croll, University of Minnesota graduate student.

Age and income have little impact on a white person’s awareness of their racial identity, the study found. But Southerners and social conservatives place more emphasis on their racial identity than other white Americans, while those with more education place less. Republican and male respondents most strongly resist claims that discrimination in legal and financial systems can explain white advantage. Additionally, respondents — regardless of their racial identity — believed strongly in the importance of individual effort, hard work and family upbringing in achieving success.

The study, available upon request, was part of the American Mosaic Project, a three-year project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation that looks at race, religion and cultural diversity in the contemporary United States.

How important is your racial identity to you? Researchers long thought it wasn’t that crucial to whites. But a groundbreaking new study on whiteness and race relations by University of Minnesota sociologists shows that whites in the U.S. are far more conscious of being white — and the privileges it brings — than was believed.

The survey is packed with fascinating findings, some surprising (a stunning proportion of whites — 77% — say their race has a distinct culture that should be preserved) and some less so (whites view their role in the social hierarchy more benignly than blacks and Hispanics do). Whites are more likely to say prejudice and discrimination put blacks at a disadvantage than to say those factors contribute to white advantage. And they are much less likely than nonwhites to attribute inequality to bias in the legal system.

What to make of all this? Though whites in the U.S. believe there remain advantages to being white, they don’t necessarily link those advantages with blacks’ disadvantages. This hinders racial reconciliation, says co-author Douglas Hartmann: “Whites have invented subtle ways to convince themselves that race isn’t a problem in America.” Blacks do see more racism in society than whites but, contrary to stereotype, seem disinclined to blame the system for their disadvantage. In fact, they are more likely to attribute it to individual causes like a lack of hard work — 77% did so, compared with 62% of whites. “We think of U.S. minorities as less engaged in American individualism,” Hartmann says, “but they are maybe more so.”

[From the September 11 issue of Time.]