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How Many People Actually Feel ‘White Guilt’?

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.

I do not challenge the veracity of any of these stories, though 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. People who attempt to do so typically just gather collections of anecdotes, and that is a game that both sides can play. The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society.

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

Once again [1], the 2016 American National Election Studies pilot study [2] 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.

There are lots of useful items on that survey, and on the larger 2016 ANES [3], but the questions specifically focused on white guilt were both interesting and novel. The survey asked the following three questions: “When you learn about racism, how much guilt do you feel due to your association with the white race?”; “How guilty do you feel about the privileges and benefits you receive as a white American?”; and “How guilty do you feel about social inequality between white and black Americans?” I hope we continue to see questions like this in major surveys in the future.

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” [4] or “racial resentment.” [5] 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.

Given the small sample size, I hesitated to slice these data up much more, and I must caution against drawing strong conclusions after doing so. But it is worth noting that there does appear to be an age gap on this question—whites under 30 were much more likely to admit feelings of racial guilt. But even for the youngest whites, zero feelings of guilt remained the modal response. This was even true of young whites that supported Bernie Sanders.

Not surprisingly, support for Trump in the GOP primaries was strongly correlated with these responses. For each iteration of this question, less than 1 percent of Trump’s primary supporters felt the highest level of racial guilt. In fact, for the question about white Americans’ “privileges and benefits,” not a single Trump supporter felt “extremely guilty.”

Returning to the subject of my previous article [1], it does not appear that religious devotion has much of an influence on these feelings. Whether a respondent went to religious services every week, attended a few times a year, or rarely or never entered a church made no meaningful difference to feelings of white guilt.

Not only are whites unlikely to feel guilty about their race, a significant number of whites deny the concept of white privilege entirely. Respondents were also asked, “How many advantages do white people have that minorities do not have in this society?” Only about 10 percent of whites said “a great many.” Over one-quarter said “none.” The modal response was “a few.” We saw similar answers from respondents when whites were asked whether their skin color leads to “more opportunities in their everyday lives.”

Whites also do not, on average, believe the federal government systematically treats white Americans better than black Americans. When asked about discrimination by the federal government, less than one-third said that whites receive better treatment than blacks.

None of this has any bearing on the question of whether there is a bias against whites in entertainment, the news media, and academia. I am not denying that it is easy to find journalists, professors, and celebrities who are eager to denounce white people. But even if there is a powerful, coordinated effort to shame and demoralize whites, it does not appear to be working. The self-flagellating whites so derided by the alt-right and even many conservatives are a tiny fraction of white Americans.

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism [6] and White Voters in 21st Century America [7].

63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "How Many People Actually Feel ‘White Guilt’?"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 12, 2017 @ 5:31 am

” I think an attractive woman of any non-White race will always be treated by society better than an out-of-shape, unattractive White woman. ”

Then you don’t comprehend the history of color polity in the US.


I guess if you consider SJW as some kind of black thing this makes sense. But I think it would be wise to remember that SJW is largely a campus gig composed largely of young white kids, many of them female and of course homosexuals.

I am unaware of some kind of black revenge in this. Though I suspect that many blacks are using the same tactics that whites used in women’s advocacy and the same sex crowd agendas. What is misleading about the article is the melding of SJW with a black cause. Having spent a good deal of time on college campuses work training environment, the term old white male, is a common refrain of white women. And I suspect that the professor is keenly aware of that, but blacks are a much easier target.

Underneath the gamesmanship

I take it that this,

“I earned my “privilege” through hard work and by being serious in high school, paying attention and studying hard.”

is to imply anyone with complaint didn’t work hard in school, didn’t pay attention, and didn’t study hard. Which would be a defense if not for one simple truth, studying hard, paying attention in school and hard work may not overcome the issue at hand.

The problem with the SJW bandwagon across the spectrum of those who rid it and drive is combines wholly dissimilar issues around the very common human experience of feelings. Phenomenological narratives are lousy mechanisms on which to make policy. And that is the liberal trump card, now codified by the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. And I suspect it spells some kind of end for conservative thought. Because the successful advocates for this in places of power: law, corporate, education and the APA have all been whites.

Go figure.

#2 Comment By Northern Observer On April 12, 2017 @ 7:58 am

What is weird about the white guilt and white supremacy arguments is that despite their intention to control and shame white people they actually elevate Whites to an exalted position. Whites become the Chosen Ones, the Agents of History, the Hand of God, in the ideological Pyramids, which makes the intellectual exercise ridiculous. Instead of flattening the inequality between groups and peoples the race thinker increase and celebrate it.

#3 Comment By Richard On April 12, 2017 @ 9:42 am

I get a different read on the data. If 35% of the white population feels some guilt about its skin color, it’s the most masochistic ethnic group in history. What would the numbers be in Africa, Japan, or Israel?

#4 Comment By john trainor On April 12, 2017 @ 11:45 am

It seems everybody feels white guilt, it’s just that they feel it for somebody else.

#5 Comment By Erdrick On April 12, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

Michael Powe says:
April 12, 2017 at 12:34 am
It says everything about people who ridicule the idea of being a “social justice warrior,” ie someone who fights for social justice.

No, people are ridiculing SJWs because the SJWs are hypocrites. They are not actually fighting for true social justice- instead, they’re fighting to impose their ideology (which treats white people- and especially straight white men- as uniquely evil villains who must be punished for the sins of their forefather, real or imagined). They’re strident zealots who are pushing a warped, twisted, evil vision that they imagine to be social justice. So we mock and denigrate them.

#6 Comment By Gregory Webb On April 12, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

This researcher is insane – 40% of people agree with one of the most idiotic concepts in modern history and this ‘proves’ the cultural bludgeoning isn’t happening?

#7 Comment By Ben Stone On April 12, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

This whole thing here is such a ridiculous example of a straw man that it could be used for generations to come to teach graduate level logical fallacy.

#8 Comment By Clem On April 12, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

“”When you learn about racism, how much guilt do you feel due to your association with the white race?”””

‘Racism’ from whom? A word that has no real meaning.

#9 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On April 13, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

The problem with studies like this is that they don’t also ask about policies that the respondent might or might not support regarding race relations. They are instead only asked to register an emotional response (“guilt”), or lack of one. Yet it is entirely logical for someone to think that, because some groups have been legally and/or de facto kept out of certain professions or companies, it might be a good idea to give them an artificial advantage. Problem is, hardly anyone is going to want to help compensate for rules they neither wrote nor operated under in their lifetimes. That, too, is entirely logical. It might seem counterintuitive, but level of feelings of “guilt” may not necessarily correlate to policy preferences or perceptions.

#10 Comment By Phil On April 14, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

That’s still over a third! When are people going to stand up to this propaganda?

#11 Comment By John On April 30, 2017 @ 8:02 pm

Thanks for sharing

#12 Comment By Jeffrey On May 5, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

Although this is an anecdotal response, others may share my views. I do not feel the slightest shame in being classified as a straight, white, male, nor do I feel any white guilt whatsoever regarding racial issues in America? My reasons are not complex. America atoned, maximally, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly white lives, during a Civil War that ended with the emancipation of Black Americans. Clearly, much work remained to be done before Black Americans were accorded the same rights as whites. Acculturation and acceptance takes time, this process appears to be inherent to the human condition, but the desegregation of the military in 1947, followed by the desegregation of schools and the courageous effort of Martin Luther King are proud moments in American history. Personally, my ancestors, as far as I can tell, have never owned slaves nor have they contributed to the sad and broken Black communities that blight our country. My grandparents immigrated to America in the early 1900s and 1920s. One set were peasants from one of the most extreme regions of poverty in southern Italy, while my second set of grandparents had lost everything they owned during the Weimar Republic inflation in Germany. Both sets of grandparents came to this country and worked hard, lived through a major depression and sent their son’s off to fight in WWII. They did not own slaves, they did not contribute to the dismal social situation experienced by blacks in this country, but remained married, focused on their families and on becoming proud Americans. Most of all, they did not blame their misfortunes and difficulties on others. No, I do not feel the slightest guilt, but only respect for what my grandparents and parents have achieved.

#13 Comment By Rosalee Adams On May 19, 2017 @ 10:33 am

My family, both sides, came in steerage with no expectations but hard work. There were NO hands out.
My mother’s side (came the latter part of 19th century from Switzerland) learned English and attended classes to become citizens as they worked at menial jobs. Earlier (mid 18th Century) my father’s side came from Scotland/Wales who also became citizens and who were sons of liberty, ie direct involvement in the Revolutionary War.
ALL were proud Americans.
Hell will freeze over before I apologize to anyone for being white.
Not going to happen on my watch.
(was amused tho when Portland CC held a month-long symposium on ‘white awareness’ ROFL)