I frequently listen to the Ezra Klein Show, and the host, Ezra Klein, has been working through an idea since his show launched in February of 2016. What Klein has recognized, questioned his guests about, and worked to better understand is where white backlash originates in our country and how white perception of race is shaped. Klein argues, and I think correctly, that the conversation around race in some way points to white people as active villains in a way that most white people do not understand. When we call out white people and the racists outcomes of our society, organizations, and our communities, there is a tendency for white people to become defensive and to push back against our observations.
This tendency is described well by President Barack Obama in a quote included in Michael Tesler’s book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. President Obama made a speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008 and in his speech he said,
“Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves have never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company, but they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.”
Klein in his podcast has recognized the way in which middle class white American’s, particularly those without a college degree, have faced more challenges in our society compared to others in recent decades. Their job outlooks do not look as good as they once did, and there is a sense that their values, particularly if they are Christian, are becoming less valuable or even a liability in our country. Combine that with the ideas laid out by President Obama in his speech and you end up with a country and society that is sending a message about white people’s responsibility in racial injustices that does not match what seems to be the reality experienced by many white people. Our push engenders a backlash, which only makes our claims seem more vilifying, creating a dangerous cycle. In a recent interview for the podcast, Conversations with Tyler, Malcom Gladwell explained to Tyler Cowen how much he has seen this backlash shape our American history.
I find it vital to better understand the historical racial tensions and relations between white and black people in our country, and I want to share a message that pushes back on the white tendency to minimize racial problems or describe them as simply excuses by those who don’t succeed. At the same time, I worry that pushing a message into the faces of those who are themselves slipping back relative to their parent’s social and economic position, or relative to the social and economic position of groups they once found themselves ahead of, will only increase the backlash which prevents us from moving forward. A true dialogue about race relations and about the vulnerability that all American’s experience can help us overcome these challenges, but we need safe settings and conversations that are more deescalatory than inflamatory.