Tuesday, March 25, 2014

White Privilege, Republicans, and the 'Just World' Fallacy

I feature readers' comments when appropriate and necessary. My post on the poverty pimps George Will and Paul Ryan over at Alternet has drawn one comment so far--but it is a damn fine comment and observation if I do say so myself. Thus, I am moved to share it.

Steven wrote the following:
I have no idea how to communicate "perspective" to someone who lacks any at all. I try to explain it this way: most white people do not think to themselves, "wow, I'm really glad my grandfather and his brother weren't lynched and their store looted then burned to the ground. Could you imagine the hole I'd have to dig myself out of if my parents and I all had to start from nothing?" No conservative white people likely ever think this. But the start we have makes a huge difference, in most cases by not having had something happen to us or earlier generations of our families. 
When people experience difficulties in their lives, they can have a very difficult time seeing themselves as privileged. It's very difficult for most majority people to wrap their minds around how much worse their lives would be if they were a minority. 
Whether the distraction is "lazy 'inner city' people" or affirmative action or something else, the result remains the same: people who have far more in common with each other than with the uber-rich remain at each others' throats, thereby accomplishing nothing to get rid of the fundamental economic injustices inflicted on most of us.
I think that this is a very good summary of the dynamics of race and privilege in the post civil rights era.

Steven's comment is also a good description for in-group and out-group dynamics more generally.

There is a sophisticated set of concepts that have been developed to discuss white racism (and its relationship to conservatism) in the post civil rights era.

Symbolic racism, dog whistle politics, white privilege, implicit bias, backstage racism, cyber racism, subtle and covert racism, micro-aggressions, realistic group conflict, etc. are a type of powerful shorthand that can be used to describe complex social phenomena.

Contemporary American conservatism is anti-intellectual, authoritarian, racist, white supremacist, cult-like, and hostile to empirical reality. Its media elites and political figures have carefully cultivated such values and beliefs for their own immediate and long-term political gains. As has been suggested elsewhere, the Republican Party and its white herrenvolk Tea Party base are useful idiots, a rich people's poor people's movement that advances the interests of the former over the latter.

Because conservatism and racism are the same thing in post civil rights America, the Republican Party is a de facto white identity organization, one that is dedicated to maintaining White Power and White Privilege.

This is rich and useful language: but what if we can reduce matters to even more simple terms?

There is a concept known as the just world theory. A basic definition:
The just-world phenomenon is a term referring to people's tendency to believe that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. Because people want to believe that the world is fair, they will look for ways to explain or rationalize away injustice - often by blaming the victim. 
Those with this belief tend to think that when bad things happen to people, it is because these individuals are bad people or have done something to deserve their misfortune. 
Conversely, this belief also leads people to think that when good things happen to people it is because those individuals are good and deserving of their happy fortune. 
The Markkula Center for Applied ethics develops the just world theory and its relationship to authoritarianism:
Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."
Ironically, then, the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice. Taken to the extreme, indifference can result in the institutionalization of injustice.
I wonder, could the meanness and hostility towards those who Republicans identity as "not normal", not "a real American", or "not real conservatives" simply be a function of the just world theory mixed with white privilege, racial chauvinism, and hostility towards any person they identify as the Other?

Black and brown Americans, the poor, and other marginalized groups know that the just world theory is a lie. Unfortunately, too many Americans are intentionally blind--and find comfort in their ignorance--to such truths.

Is it even possible to positively communicate with and reeducate those Americans, especially white conservatives, who have internalized the just world lie precisely because their in-group privilege has historically rested on creating an unjust world for others?


mbfromnm said...

The "just world" thesis sure fits my experience. I find a huge vicseral commitment to this assumption among my fellow whites, regardless of education level.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

"God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us." Joel Osteen.

Reaffirmation of Manifest Destiny?

Louis Dixon said...

I don't think so. When you get to that hardcore segment, the cultural conditioning is so ancient, and the in-group ego gratification so self-supporting, white supremacy/privilege offers what appears to be a "better" offer than the uncomfortable frission a dialogue opens with, so they take the easy way out and don't bother. But you did nail the issue, so kudos.

RPM said...

'Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca The Younger
The same could be said for libertarianism and all other 'the market will decide' arguments. Those two philosphies that drive the republican base serve the elite better than any legislation or tax shelter ever could. If you believe in a just world, even if the justice comes in the afterlife you will never be a threat. Unfortunately, while it's easy to put this solely on republicans and white supremacists, democrats and poor minorities believe this crap too. I've heard many middle aged black women tell me that faith in god will fix the economic, gender and racial oppression people face. And while I understand how faith is all some poor have to cling to, it won't change anything for the better. The belief that some random mythical force, or magical market fix, will solve everything only helps the rich. It's not poor white conservatives that need to be reeducated on just world myth, Chauncey, it's the rest of the poor in the world. It's not just well off elites that fear a just and fair world. Poor bigots do as well. Because they all know they can't compete and if your near the bottom the last thing you want to hear is how you'd be at the bottom if things were fair. Anyone who believes the world is fair or justice will happen for everyone in the end is being willfully sociopathic. Wanting to believe in a fair world moves you forward. Believing in one just keeps you moving back. I don't think you can change bigotry and indoctrination with reason just proof. If a better world was made through collective action conservatives would reap just as many benefits as everyone they oppose on prejudice. They aren't, however, going to fight to get us there. After the benefits are enjoyed by them than they will change their minds. Trying to teach them that they can't look down on others even when their life sucks is a lot harder. Best to work on convincing the rest of the planet that doesn't think Jesus or Rand will save them. We call it the struggle because it is. Everything worth doing is hard but tactics have to change. You can't teach the racist that the 'other' isn't inferior. You have to show them. If I could remake the world today into a fair, just, happy place for every living thing on this planet I would. But if you asked me find anyone to help change and support the better earth, I wouldn't start trying to enlist those that will oppose it the most. People that think children starving in India are suffering because they deserve it either because of wrong faith or inferior genes are psychopaths and should not be the target for change. I wouldn't put rapists in charge of a woman's shelter either. Bigotry and hatred are feelings not thoughts. Thoughts and ideas can be used to support or denounce them but the feeling is what must change. A changed society can change feelings. The external can shape the internal but the internal won't shape the external as long as feelings remain. Feelings are personal, so best to work with those who feel for others outright rather than ones who haven't come around yet.

chauncey devega said...

Lots to process. When you have poor folks who believe this stuff is it just a surrender to brainwashing, an adaptive strategy, or just a false face put on for dealing with those who are outside of the group?

chauncey devega said...

Conditioning is the operative word because it results in unthinking and unreflective behavior. When that behavior exists with a system of privilege that benefits you, why confront it?

chauncey devega said...

The Christian Dominionist Calvinism 1% prosperity gospel stuff is a hot mess and a hustle. I love how conservatives in the U.S. have cooptated white surfer love the rich people Jesus.

chauncey devega said...

Race and class and white folks losing...some anyway. We can't forget that white supremacy invented systems of support the ensured that even mediocre white people would be taken care of--see the GI Bill.

mbfromnm said...

Yes, and social security during the New Deal was written to deliberately exclude agricultural workers and housekeepers, the two jobs where so many blacks could find employment. More white affirmative action.

RPM said...

A bit of all three I'd say, but a case by case basis is how I approach it. Every tribe, however you define that term, is indoctornated to fear other tribes and justify their own beliefs in relation to the world. Integration works, it just takes a long time. Once people self segregate it defeats the purpose of ending legal segregation so tactics must change. Exposure changes feelings even subtlety. If you have media that demonizes and stereotypes people in fiction or "reality" than the bigots always have a reinforcement view to fall back on. Seeing people as individuals and not representations is the last step to overcoming prejudice. A black male on screen will never, could never represent all black males. Neither could one Muslim speak on a billions behalf. Women make up more than half the world yet are often only brought on shows to discuss women's issues. When we think of prejudice we always go with fear and ignorance. And yet I know of so many that can still be bigoted even when sounded by several people on a daily basis outside their tribes. People they are friends with. People they sleep with. People they work with. And they still immediately prejudge all outsiders just like the people they know even when they aren't afraid. White privilege allows fellow Caucasians off the hook instead of being judged for Bush, Reagan and Nixon's actions. That privilege or basic common sense hasn't been extended yet. I think if everyone not just the select few with means, could travel outside of their culture it would bring that forth much quicker. This one low info voter I knew told me a few years ago that he just found out they were killing christians in Cairo. That offended him. He was a racist, poor white, so I doubt he gave a shit about what happened to Egyptians in general. Once he saw them as fellow christians it changed for him. He still didn't give a shit about non christians being killed there. One step forward twelve steps back but that is how it begins for most. They sing lullabies to their babies in Afghanistan. They watch crap TV in Turkey. They bitch about grocery shopping in Panama. Surface differences fade with exposure. All the defense mechanisms and self preservation ideology recides if the lie isn't constantly reinforced.

JustMe said...

Excellent article. I know quite a few middle-lower class Conservatives and I never understand how they can back the very people who, very obviously, don't care about them. I wouldn't label myself as Conservative, Liberal or any other political alignment. I tend to think none of them can be trusted, regardless of red/blue status (but I distrust the Red a lot more).

But, as I was writing this, something popped in my head that my boyfriend said, "that everyone wants to be rich, and they'll do all kinds of things to get there." At first, I was in complete disagreement but after he explained it to me, I understood what he meant and could kind of see it, but it's only until now, do I really get the significance in relation to race.

These middle-lower class white Conservatives side with them because they aspire to be in that upper echelon. Now, while I wouldn't say I think my friends would be racist, but upon some reflection if being honest, I would say that I can see it on the outer edges, maybe not an aspect they would even really like about themselves, if they admitted to it. So I would hazard a guess that's why, they believe, somewhere in their fantasy of the good life because It's a Just World, and that when they achieve this reward for being good, they will benefit from it....

Damn, I like the way you are making me have to consider new angles. I always thought that because race didn't matter to me and I stood up for what is right, not what is white; because I could feel comfortable enough to talk about race; because I try to relate to people as human beings, a collection of individual experiences that I was relating well. But now I have to consider more aspects and this widens my perspective on how to continue trying to relate with others. This can only be beneficial as far as I am concerned so thank you for yet another thought-provoking piece to read.

chauncey devega said...

Thank you for the kind comment. My goal is to challenge. You are onto something w. conservative ideology, many conservatives who are not rich support the elites because they do actually think that one day--however foolishly that they or their kids will be part of that group--most wealth is inherited in the U.S. and class mobility is rather low, ranking somewhere behind France.

When you add in the psychological wages of whiteness matters become even more complicated because now it is about racial group position.