Zero Sum Games

Is Anti-White Bias a Problem? 

A new study says whites think discrimination against them is a bigger problem than anti-black bias. Is this surprising?

5/22/11 10:29 PM

When Prejudice Is So Malleable – Room for Debate –

Room for Debate: A Running Commentary on the News

When Prejudice Is So Malleable

Updated May 22, 2011, 10:05 PM

Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University. She writes the column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” which appears monthly in The Nation.

[This piece is part of a roundtable responding to a study by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers, “Whites See Racism As A Zero Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.”  It is published in the journal Perspectivs on Pyschological Science.  The online version can be found at

The finding that white Americans see blacks’ progress as an insult or a diminishment of their status is not entirely surprising. Zero-sum formulations of prejudice tend to emerge in lean economic times, fueling cultural or historical rivalries of all sorts. I have a hunch that if the study had included questions about whether whites feel threatened by “reverse racism” among Asians, Latinos and immigrants, the results would be much the same. Those perceptions notwithstanding, data show that white Americans remain the most privileged human beings on the planet.

The world is changing, however, and the realignment of wealth, power, jobs and resources has been deeply challenging to the notion of American exceptionalism. That exceptionalism, consciously or unconsciously, is infused with racialized hierarchies — normative whiteness and masculinity still marking the “worthiest” inheritors of the American dream. Moreover, the downturn in all our fortunes has been relentlessly and poisonously exploited by certain segments of the media. The language of “us” versus “them” dominates far too much of our radio and television discourse. The litany of scapegoats who are supposedly fouling “our” trough includes not just blacks but those of Mexican, Japanese, Korean or Hawaiian descent, non-born-again Christians, the entire People’s Republic of China, Canadians, the French, liberal elites and the elderly.

The trickiest thing about prejudice is that it is so malleable, so capable of reinvention. Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton, has documented the varied and fluctuating presentations of social biases like race, class, disability, gender. She points out that there are nuanced differences in how prejudice is expressed against the disabled as opposed to Asian-Americans, or as against high-status blacks versus poor blacks, or the homeless or those with low-status accents. Elements like pity, resentment, competition, revulsion, paternalism, or fear play against one another in complicated ways.

Fiske employs a grid to predict how social groups will be ranked, using attributed vectors of warmth/coldness and competence/incompetence. In the simplest terms, her metric is as follows: 1. Those stereotyped as high competence and high warmth are met with pride and admiration (like most white people). 2. Groups who rank as high warmth and low competence are treated with pity, sympathy, paternalism (like the elderly). 3. Those stereotyped as high competence and low warmth are met with envy (like Jews and Asians). 4. Those perceived as low competence and low warmth are greeted with contempt, anger and resentment (like the homeless).

Through much of American history, blacks have been viewed as low on the competence index (negative feelings), but warm enough to be pitied (which is usually felt not as a negative but a protective, “pro-black” fuzzy emotion). As blacks have made greater symbolic strides in the last few decades, that ranking seems to have shifted: there is envy, suspicion, resentment — despite numbers, despite empirical documentation to the contrary — that blacks are “taking over” as the recipients not of due process but of undue “favoritism.”

This projected fear is a danger to the nation. For all the gains of the civil rights movement, blacks remain among the poorest, most segregated and most unemployed of all Americans. There can be no commonweal when such grim reality is invisible to white fellow citizens who are driven instead by fantasies of competitive victimhood. A house divided cannot stand.


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Filed under affirmative action, race, gender, class, ethnicity, zero sum

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