While many commentators saw Barack Obama's election as signaling the emergence of a post-racial America, it might one day be seen instead as the symbolic moment all Americans became minorities.
But symbolic minority status is another matter. It refers to the point of view of what the dictionary describes as "a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment."
The Wall Street Journal headline was referring to a survey by Michael I. Norton, of Harvard Business School, and Samuel R. Sommers, a professor of psychology at Tufts University. The researchers contacted a national random sample of 209 whites and 208 blacks and asked them, on a scale from 1 to 10, the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were the target of discrimination from the 1950s to the 2000s.
Black respondents saw anti-black bias decline steadily, from 9.7 on the scale in the 1950s to 6.1 in the 2000s. During that same period, they thought anti-white bias increased marginally, from 1.4 to 1.8.
White respondents also saw anti-black bias decline through the decades, but even more dramatically than blacks did, from 9.1 in the 1950s to 3.6 in the 2000s. More significantly, whites also saw anti-white bias shoot up from 1.8 to 4.7 in the same period. As the researchers concluded, over the decades there was a "complete reversal" in whites' perception of racism. By the 2000s, whites considered anti-white bias to be a greater social problem than anti-black bias.
Norton and Sommers don't waste time pondering the veracity of that conclusion. By any metric, they write, "from employment to police treatment, loan rates to education — statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for black than white Americans." Instead, they figure this historic flip-flop is not about objective conditions but about how whites conceptualize bias. Norton and Sommers conclude that whites, unlike blacks, view racism as a zero-sum game, a situation in which one side's gain automatically results only from the other's loss.
These findings aren't unexpected. Over the past decade, we've seen a rising tide of aggrieved white folks. Accusations of reverse discrimination have increased, along with high-profile court cases like the one filed by firefighters in New Haven, Conn., in which white men claimed they were denied potential promotions because of their race. (The Supreme Court agreed.)
A November 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 56% of Republicans, 57% of white evangelicals and 61% of "tea party" sympathizers think discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
Norton and Sommers don't know exactly why whites view racism as a zero-sum game, but they suggest that affirmative-action policies, designed to increase minority representation in education and hiring, may focus whites' attention on the "impact of quota-like procedures on their own access" to jobs and colleges.
This doesn't bode well. When even the majority group sees itself in a struggle for status and respect, it erodes any notion of the collective good. Forget the melting pot or the salad bowl; the metaphor for how we balance diversity and unity is becoming the fighting cage.
Whites have always been susceptible to criticism for assuming they can define "we," while minorities represent only their discrete parts of the whole. The new research bolsters evidence that whites are abdicating the role as arbiters and upholders of a national consensus.
It's good news that whites no longer feel that they alone own the nation's core values. But the failure of even the majority group to look out for the greater good, as opposed to its parochial interests, leaves a vacuum at the center of U.S. life