When Black People Climb, Do White People Fall?
The disconnect between discrimination perceptions and discrimination experiences
Posted December 9, 2019
(The post below is written by Megan Earle, Ph.D. candidate, under the supervision of Gordon Hodson.)
The term “reverse discrimination,” the belief that American society now favors racial minorities over Whites, has been around since at least the Civil Rights era. When the United States began making strides to improve conditions for Blacks through affirmative action policies and desegregation efforts, it was frequently argued, particularly among the political right, that such policies unfairly put Whites at a disadvantage in favor of racial minorities.
In recent years, the discussion of reverse discrimination has gained new popularity. Beliefs that Whites are losing out to racial minorities have been tied to alt-right political movements, feelings of threat and anxiety among disgruntled Whites, and the election of Donald Trump.
Reverse discrimination seems to be rooted in zero-sum thinking about racial relations, beliefs that when one group gains, others necessarily lose. But is it true that when conditions improve for Blacks, Whites are put at a disadvantage?
In a recently published paper (Earle & Hodson, 2019), we examined trajectories of discrimination against Blacks and Whites in the U.S. over the past several decades. Regardless of whether we consider workplace discrimination, rates of hate crimes, or experiences with discrimination in daily interactions with others, we find a consistent pattern: Discrimination against Blacks has been declining. But contrary to zero-sum thinking and beliefs about reverse discrimination, conditions have been improving for Whites at the same time. That is, race-based discrimination against Whites has been low and remained low over the past 20 years. And, as anti-Black discrimination declined, anti-White hate crimes and daily discrimination have also shown a decline.
It seems that, in the case of racial discrimination, a rising tide lifts all boats.
But regardless of how social progress actually operates, it’s also important to examine what people believe about racial discrimination because these perceptions lay the foundation for public policy.
In a nationally representative survey of American adults, participants in our paper were asked to estimate how much discrimination is faced by Blacks and Whites in the United States today. On average, people (whether they are Black or White, Democrat or Republican) believed that Blacks face more discrimination than Whites. Further, people don’t tend to believe that lower levels of anti-Black discrimination are related to higher levels of anti-White discrimination.
Yet misperceptions about racial discrimination exist. When comparing discrimination perceptions to reported discrimination experiences, we find that Whites and Republicans tend to underestimate the amount of discrimination experienced by Blacks. Republicans also tend to perceive that Blacks and Whites face more equal amounts of discrimination than what reported experiences would suggest.
In contrast, Blacks and Democrats appear to have more accurate perceptions of the amount of discrimination faced by Blacks today. However, Blacks and Democrats nonetheless overestimate the discrimination gap between Blacks and Whites, an effect apparently driven by perceptions that Whites face less discrimination than what is reportedly experienced by Whites.
Overall, our analysis shows that racial discrimination does not operate in a zero-sum manner (whereby gains by one group are supposedly accompanied by losses for the other). On the contrary, conditions appear to be improving for both Blacks and Whites, suggesting that action to reduce anti-Black discrimination does not produce reverse discrimination, but rather coincides with improved conditions for Whites as well.
Nonetheless, discrimination perceptions are often out of sync with discrimination experiences. Indeed, anti-Black racism remains a persistent problem in the U.S., and Blacks still face more discrimination today than many Americans acknowledge. In striving for racial equality, it is important to recognize how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
1. Earle, M. & Hodson, G. (2019). Questioning white losses and anti-White discrimination in the U.S. Nature Human Behaviour.
2. Major, B., Blodorn, A., & Major Blascovich, G. (2018) The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21, 931–940. doi: 10.1177/1368430216677304
3. Mutz, D. C (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 115, 1-10. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1718155115
4. Craig, M. A., & Richeson, J. A. (2014). More diverse yet less tolerant? How the increasingly diverse racial landscape affects White Americans’ racial attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 750–761. doi: 10.1177/0146167214524993
5. Earle, M., & Hodson, G. (2019). Right-wing adherence and objective numeracy as predictors of minority group size perceptions and size threat reactions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 760-777. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2538