Now that an Ivy League study has quantified the patronizing racial attitudes of white liberals, I can rest comfortably, knowing that I’m not alone in my belief that well-intentioned whites sometimes speak down to black people.
In a study called Self Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals, two professors from Princeton and Yale found that white liberals “patronize minorities stereotyped as lower status and less competent.” The study found that white conservatives don’t tend to do that.
The dichotomy brings to mind the adage I’ve often heard from older blacks. It goes something like this: I’d rather deal with white folks from down South. At least with them you know where you stand.
In other words, white liberals are sometimes just as racist as white conservatives. They just hide it better, and, for black folks, that’s harder to navigate.
And therein lies the issue. In a quest to relate to black folks, some white liberals speak in ways that are not natural for them. And they do so because their biases tell them that blacks are incapable of understanding anything beyond rudimentary language. This results in unnatural and phony exchanges that feel forced and inauthentic.
The study, conducted by Cydney Dupree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale, and Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, cites research indicating that most whites — especially socio-political liberals — endorse racial equality. However, the study also cites recent research suggesting that while “blacks are perceived as relatively American [in contrast to other racial minority groups such as Asian-Americans and Latin-Americans], they are still perceived as inferior to whites.”
So that explains it. All this time, I thought that being born in the country my ancestors built made me American. But even after the 13th Amendment freed my forebears from forced bondage and the 14th Amendment made them and their progeny full citizens, I’m still viewed as “relatively” American in 2018.
In conservative circles, even that relative citizenship is being challenged, with President Trump making political hay by threatening to take away birthright citizenship. As unrealistic as it may be to change the Constitution to accomplish that goal, the statement reflects a definite disdain not just for immigrants but also for the African American community that the 14th Amendment originally benefited.
Among the liberal community, racial goals are more ambiguous. The interactions with blacks are less honest. The result, in my experience, is that some white liberals approach conversations with black people about issues affecting the African American community with the presupposition that black people have no idea what they’re talking about.
I’ve experienced this in conversations about gentrification, where my white, liberal counterparts could not imagine why black people would not want property values in their neighborhood to rise exponentially.
Questions like: “Do you want the neighborhood to stay poor?” or “What’s bad about improved services and police presence?” are posed with exasperated disbelief, even laughter. When blacks point out that it doesn’t matter if the neighborhood improves if they can’t stay, the liberal response is often dismissive.
It’s as if some self-identified white liberals are fine with racial equality so long as blacks agree with everything our liberal counterparts believe to be true.
I’ve seen this dynamic play out as I’ve expressed my opposition to supervised injection sites, where those addicted to opioids can inject them under medical supervision.
Many in the white liberal community favor these sites, which are meant to act as a safeguard against overdoses from heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs. But in my view, such sites are a means of enabling addiction. And they are a reflection of the liberal racism that allowed even the most well-meaning whites to remain silent while black drug addicts were criminalized in the 1990s. These same people are now leading the charge to help addicts to shoot illegal drugs under medical supervision, and, in my view, it is grounded in the fact that in 2016, 80 percent of those who overdosed on opioids were white.
The white liberal response to such opposition is condescending at best and hostile at worst. Never mind that myself and others in my community have experienced the drug war close up and have seen the devastation. It seems that in the mind of some white liberals, blacks are incapable of thinking critically, and therefore should remain silent in the face of white intellect.
I’m glad that this is not a universal mind-set among white liberals, but I’m alarmed that it is prevalent enough to be a real problem in our interactions.
To solve it, we must be honest with one another, we must listen to one another, and we must move beyond the hollow lip service that pretends to embrace equality.
If white liberals really believe that blacks are equal to them, they can start by taking off their masks.