Posted on April 2, 2022

How White Victimhood Fuels Republican Politics

Alex Samuels and Neil Lewis Jr., FiveThirtyEight, March 21, 2022

On Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, was elected the first Black president of the United States. His election was seen as a hopeful moment in America and ushered in lots of think pieces and reporting that his presidency was the start of a new “post-racial” society. At long last — in the eyes of many, at least — there was hope that the racial wounds that have long divided Black and white Americans would heal.


Trump’s election killed any illusions anyone might have had about a “post-racial” America. Indeed, Trump was successful in finding a predominately white audience who lapped up his overt racism toward people of color and who were eager to embrace a rising sense of white victimhood

Trump may be out of power, but those feelings aren’t. They may even be growing. 

With President Biden having just passed one full year in office, public opinion research shows that white Americans — and especially Republicans — see whites as victims of discrimination more than, say, Hispanic or Black Americans. According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, only 17 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Americans said there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in today’s society. That number rose to 26 percent when Republicans were asked whether they believed white people faced “a lot” of discrimination. And intense white racial resentment remains present both among Trump’s base and in our politics today. Case in point: Trump, who’s a (very, very early) favorite to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is still hitting that same drum; during a recent political event, the former president went so far as to falsely claim that white people were currently being discriminated against and sent to the “back of the line” when it came to receiving COVID-19 vaccines and treatment.

{snip} So why have many white Americans started to see themselves as the victims of racial discrimination?

Back in 2011, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and Tufts University professor Samuel Sommers published a study showing that white Americans perceived bias against whites as increasing from the 1950s to the 2000s. 

According to Sommers, it’s hard to pinpoint just one factor driving this feeling of white victimhood among white Americans. “There’s this sense that there’s only so much of anything to go around, so more of something for other groups or entities might mean less of something for me and my group,” he told us. {snip}

These feelings were especially prevalent in the late 2000s, when white people saw a Black man rising to the nation’s highest office. But today, beyond Obama, other perceived “threats” to white Americans — such as an increasingly multiracial nation that could eventually lead to the U.S. becoming a “majority-minority” society, or Trump’s loss in 2020 to Biden — likely fueled existing beliefs and feelings of inadequacy and victimhood among white Americans.

The same is likely true of the discussions about “racial reckonings” following the murder of George Floyd, coupled with a few high-profile examples of Black people breaking barriers. Indeed, previous polling has documented that white Americans — and especially white Republicans — largely think too much attention is paid to race and racial issues. {snip}


Since at least the year 2000, polling firms have been asking Americans questions about how much discrimination they perceive is faced by white Americans, asking respondents to place that discrimination on a scale or to compare it to other racial and ethnic groups. And our analysis of the Roper Center’s data shows that before Obama’s first election, roughly half of Republicans perceived there to be at least some discrimination against white people. Specifically, according to a 2000 poll from Princeton Survey Research Associates/The National Conference for Community and Justice, 56 percent of Republicans said that white Americans faced at least some discrimination, and by 2005, when the organizations asked the question again, that number dipped slightly to 47 percent. However, toward the end of Obama’s first term, other polling found the share of Republicans answering a similar question to be higher, as can be seen for the years 2011 and 2012 on the chart below, which uses data from PRRI.

PRRI has asked a slightly different question — to what extent respondents agree that discrimination against white Americans is now as significant of an issue as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities — almost yearly between 2011 and 2020. The trend across that timespan is a bit messier, but the share of Republicans who “completely agreed” or “mostly agreed” with the statement was mostly higher during Trump’s time in office than during Obama’s.

It is noteworthy that Democrats saw things quite differently than Republicans — indeed the clearest trend in the chart above is the polarization of views on this question along party lines. The percentage of Democrats who say there is at least “some” discrimination against whites has steadily decreased since the turn of the century, and this trend is consistent across both Roper and PRRI datasets. These trends are also consistent with new research that builds on Norton and Sommers’s initial work. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a team of researchers from Tufts, Harvard and the VA Bedford Healthcare System found that race and partisanship shape perceptions of racism as a zero-sum game. “Liberal White Americans saw racism as a zero-sum game they were winning by a lot, moderate White Americans saw it as a game they were winning by only a little,” the researchers wrote, “and conservative White Americans saw it as a game they were losing.”

Of course, race and partisanship are intertwined: The vast majority of Republicans are white, and indeed, if we look at the same question by race, we see similar patterns:

Worryingly, these trends may be increasing after Biden’s inauguration. PRRI didn’t ask the same question again in 2021, so we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison there. But according to Pew’s 2021 survey, the share of Republicans — including “leaners,” i.e., Americans leaning toward one party or the other — who said there is at least “some” discrimination against white people was 63 percent. This includes 26 percent who said there is “a lot” of discrimination against white people, which looks like an all-time high.