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How Many People Actually Feel ‘White Guilt’?

The efforts of the “Social Justice Warriors” don’t appear to be working, survey data show.
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, 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.

There are lots of useful items on that survey, and on the larger 2016 ANES, 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” 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.

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, 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 and White Voters in 21st Century America.