Is Racism on the Rise in the US?


With the rise of Donald Trump, there is now a growing concern about racism in the US. Vox has an interesting theory on the topic. They analyzed the recent data and argued that economic hardship does not explain Trump’s popularity and the rise of racist sentiments. They are proposing that it’s the other way around; that is, it’s racism that is causing them to believe that they are experiencing economic hardship. Flipping them implies that racism has no cause. They are not looking for a different cause; they believe racism is the origin of the problem. In other words, some people are innately racist (like they are born racist) and Obama’s presidency awoke their latent racist drive.

This theory does not make sense for the simple reason that we are all racist and prejudiced. Racism is just one of many forms of prejudice. I think this idea of racism being innate only to some people is appealing particularly to white people who are under constant threat of being labeled a racist. Much of their anxiety is caused by their own feelings of guilt. The idea that some are inherently racist while others are not is appealing because it can permanently deflect the accusations and alleviate their feelings of guilt. But alas, nobody can.

Let’s define what racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are at their root. Xenophobia has the broadest definition of them. It’s basically a fear of unfamiliar things. We are all guilty of this. Just think of the people around you. How diverse is your circle of friends? I don’t just mean racial diversity; I mean age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, language, careers, the level of intelligence, education, and income. When you take into consideration all these factors, you realize how narrow and specific your own bubble is. Why? Because we are attracted to others who are familiar to us. This is how xenophobia, or fear of foreign things, manifests in our everyday life. Unless we consciously fight this natural inclination, we end up giving into our own xenophobia.

In one of the studies Vox cites, Jonathan Rothwell discusses “contact theory” where “friendly contact with other groups reduces anxiety around the threat of rejection and eases comfort with physical and conversational engagement.” In other words, diversity by itself does not reduce xenophobia or racism. What matters is the degree of their interaction or “contact” with one another. This means we should expect a higher level of xenophobia in homogeneous societies as well as in diverse but highly segregated societies.

Again, I encourage you to think about your own circle of friends; how segregated is it? How many foreigners do you have who do not speak much English? How many are 20 years older or younger than you are? How many are much wealthier or poorer than you are? If you have a graduate degree, how many of your friends are high-school dropouts? If you are a computer programmer, how many of your friends are plumbers?

What is the material difference between preferring to hang out with familiar people and shunning unfamiliar people? Aren’t they just two different ways to rationalize the same behavior? Would a world be a better place if we preferred to be segregated? No, because the racists within us will rear their ugly heads hovering behind us whenever we misdiagnose our fears. And when someone accuses us of xenophobia, we would simply deny.

Just saying that you are not xenophobic or racist does not suddenly make you free of prejudice because much of the problem is unconscious. Donald Trump does not think he is xenophobic or racist. Pointing your finger at others does not help the situation either; it just aggravates it.

Racism or Islamaphobia are not a unique mechanism independent of the other forms of prejudice. At the core, they all share one and the same structure and drive. Nobody is free of them. Given that the US is a nation of immigrants with a constant stream of foreigners flowing in, the level of familiarity with foreign people should have increased over the years. Of course, there will always be some pockets of homogenous neighborhoods where the fear still reigns supreme but overall as a nation, I believe the US is on the right track. Otherwise, Obama would not have been elected.

Prejudice is a symptom of fear. When fear and anxiety increase, so does prejudice. And, we often misidentify what is causing our fears, which is how we end up scapegoating innocent bystanders. (The episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” brilliantly illustrates this point.)

We can address this problem in two ways:

  1. Determine the accurate cause of fear.
  2. Make concerted efforts to be more familiar with unfamiliar things so that you would be less likely to use them as scapegoats or misdirect your fear or anger.

Now getting back to what is causing racism among the Trump supporters. Vox disputes the common view that it’s economic anxiety. They point to a broad study that compares economic pessimism and racial resentment which found no correlation. But why did they choose this general study when they have access to (and have cited to support their other claims) a study that is more specific to Trump supporters? The same study mentioned above by Jonathan Rothwell says:

“Those with a favorable view of Trump report far greater economic insecurity than those who do not. The gap is quite wide (8 percentage points) between Trump supporters and those who hold an unfavorable view of him but identify as Republicans.”

Vox also argues in another article that economic hardship simply does not exist for Trump supporters because their income data do not support it. This is because they are looking at the absolute measures of wealth only. Their claim is equivalent to saying that no New Yorkers should complain about our levels of income because, compared to people in other states, we are making significantly more money.

We all know that white people make more money on the average than blacks do, for instance. The issue here isn’t about the absolute level. When we are trying to figure out the psychological state of people—why they behave in certain ways—we need to look at the relative and perceived levels.

Say, for instance, your annual salary is $100,000 and your employer decided to cut your pay by 30% today; you would likely feel some anxiety over your financial situation. According to Vox, you would be incorrect to feel this anxiety because you are making a lot more money than the average Americans. Such a mathematical conclusion is not relevant when we are trying to assess the level of anxiety. Even if we conceptually know that we should still be grateful, getting any pay cut would still be anxiety-inducing.

Furthermore, nobody disputes the correlation between Trump supporters and blue collar jobs. Among all the career choices we have, blue collar jobs are particularly under threat, like self-driving cars wiping out all the truck drivers. For those who have no college degrees, the prospect of having to change their careers in the near future, I’m sure, is highly anxiety-inducing. The fact that many people cannot afford to go to college is adding to this anxiety too. It is anxiety-inducing even for college grads, given the rapid rate at which things are evolving today. White collar jobs are more flexible because of the common tools of our jobs (i.e. computers), but blue collar jobs are harder to retrain for. These factors would increase their levels of perceived threat which won’t be reflected in the absolute levels of their incomes.

By flipping the cause and effect, by saying racism is causing their economic anxiety, we would stop looking for what is causing the racism.

Lastly, xenophobia also applies to political beliefs too, not just to countries, race, and religions. We can’t claim to embrace “multicultural ideology” and “religious tolerance”, and spew hatred towards those who have different political beliefs. If you don’t truly understand the mechanics of prejudice, you become blind to your own prejudice when there is no commonly used term for it. And, the terms like “multicultural ideology” simply become buzzwords.

One of the problems with xenophobia is that we end up over-generalizing foreign/unfamiliar people. “The far-right” is not a person. They are made up of real people. Each has his or her own reasons for voting. When we criticize our enemies, we tend to lump everyone into one group as if they are one person. It’s an attempt to dehumanize them. But when we are criticized by our opponents, we conveniently complain that we are being stereotyped. That is, we expect our opponent to differentiate and respect our individual differences, even though we do not extend the same courtesy to our opponent. This too is a manifestation of xenophobia.

In fighting any form of prejudice, it is much easier and quicker to modify our own behavior than to try to modify the behavior of others. We spend too much time and energy pointing fingers at others and denying our own problems. If we realized how xenophobic we are, we would feel too hypocritical to accuse anyone of xenophobia. If we all focused on our own part in the problem, many of these problems will disappear over night.