How Many People Actually Feel ‘White Guilt’?

George Hawley, The American Conservative, April 11, 2017

One of the most persistent tropes on the racial right is that the major cultural institutions in the United States aggressively push a story of white guilt. The media and the education system—from pre-K to postgraduate—are the most frequent targets of this accusation, though increasingly churches are also charged with being strongholds of the “Social Justice Warriors.”

According to this narrative, white Americans face a constant barrage of derision, persistently hearing about the evils of their white-supremacist ancestors and the unfairness of their current unearned privilege. They are told that their racial sins can never be truly washed away, but they can achieve partial atonement by signing onto various progressive causes, especially generous immigration policies and policies designed to uplift African-Americans.

This argument is not exclusively embraced by the far-right. Mainstream conservatives are similarly eager to share stories of “political correctness run amok.” A visit to the Drudge Report on any given day will likely include a story about left-wing indoctrination and intolerance of dissent at an overpriced university. Similar stories are posted daily at websites like Campus Reform.

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I am not sure how one would objectively, numerically, and conclusively demonstrate that the leading cultural institutions in America are pushing an anti-white message.

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We can, however, discern whether “white guilt” is actually something a large number of white Americans feel.

Once again, the 2016 American National Election Studies pilot study can provide some insights. The ANES is always one of the best resources for public-opinion scholars, but this year I was delighted to see that it included a trove of great questions relating to racial attitudes.

White Guilt Poll

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It turns out that only a minority of white Americans admit to feeling any kind of guilt about race. No matter how the question was framed, a substantial majority of whites stated that they felt literally no racial guilt.

This is surprising because, when surveyed, whites have a tendency to exaggerate their liberalism on racial questions. A negligible percentage of white Americans will admit agreeing with transparently racist sentiments, which is one reason many surveys no longer even bother asking questions related to so-called old-fashioned racism. When trying to tease out racist attitudes among whites, public-opinion surveys have increasingly relied on indirect measures, questions designed to measure so-called “symbolic racism” or “racial resentment.” Thus, even though I believe that most white Americans do not really feel guilty about race, I did expect more to at least pretend to do so.

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