(Proto)Typical White Denial: Reflections on Racism and Uncomfortable Realities

Not long ago, after I had written an article in which I discussed white denial–the tendency for most white folks to reject the notion that racism is still a significant obstacle for people of color in the U.S.–I received an e-mail from a white man who insisted that my argument was itself racist. His reason? According to his message, simply by stating that most white folks remain in denial about the extent of racism and discrimination against people of color, I had engaged in anti-white bigotry, since I had made a generalization about a racial group: in this case, the one that both he and I share.

He went on to offer an analogy that he felt proved my argument to be racist. “What if I were to write an article where I said ‘most black people are criminals’?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that be racist against blacks?” In other words, he argued, to make any comments about racial groups is inherently racist, and so my saying that most whites were in denial was every bit as bad as saying that most blacks are criminals.

Of course, and as I explained to him at the time, such an argument makes no sense at all. The reason it is racist to say that “most blacks are criminals,” is because such a position is based on racial stereotypes rather than factual information: it casts aspersions upon an entire group of people, based not on truth, but on the basis of ignorant prejudice. Most blacks are not criminals; indeed, the vast majority are not. There are about 28 million African Americans over the age of 12 in the U.S. (and thus eligible for inclusion in crime data), and only a small number of these (fewer than five percent) will commit a crime in a given year. So while it would not be racist to note that black folks have a higher official crime rate than whites–this is a fact borne out by evidence, and which doesn’t necessarily cast a characterological judgment upon those it mentions–saying that most blacks are criminals is simply a lie, and to the extent it casts aspersions upon a racial group that can lead to their continued stereotyping, a racist lie at that.

To say that “most white folks are in denial” is not racist, because such a belief is not based on stereotypes about whites; rather, the claim is supported by what white folks actually say when asked if we believe racism to be a significant problem: the vast majority, in poll after poll answer that it is not, irrespective of the evidence to the contrary. And we have long believed that, so even in the early 1960s, at a time when in retrospect all would agree the nation was profoundly unequal in its treatment of people of color, whites told pollsters in overwhelming numbers (anywhere from sixty-five to nearly ninety percent) that blacks had equal opportunities in employment and education. White denial has been a hallmark of the nation’s racial history. Saying that is not racist, it is an incontrovertible fact.

Apparently, and if recent events are any indication, the difference between mentioning a group tendency, on the one hand, and casting aspersions upon the group in question, on the other, is something lots of folks can’t quite grasp. So, consider the uproar among many white Americans when presidential candidate, Barack Obama stated recently that his grandmother had been a “typical white person,” in that she would often have a negative reaction when encountering someone of a different race. The comment, made during a radio program the day after Obama’s now-famous speech on race from Philadelphia, was taken by an awful lot of whites as a racist assault, a blatantly prejudicial example of anti-white bigotry on the part of the U.S. Senator. To many whites, still in a lather over the comments made by Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, the “typical white person” remark was only further confirmation that Obama is racist against white people. The story dominated talk radio for days, as well as letters to the editor of local and national papers, and I received hundreds of e-mails from folks demanding to know when I was going to speak out against Obama’s “defamation” of white people.

Interestingly, outrage over Obama’s remarks has manifested, despite how easy it is to confirm the utter accuracy of his comment–accuracy which itself disproves the notion that the statement about “typical” white people was racist. The fact is, if by “typical” one means the norm, the average (and what else, after all, could be meant by it?), then whites indeed, by our own admission, hold any number of negative, prejudiced, and ultimately racist beliefs about black people. Evidence of this basic truth can be gleaned from any number of sources: opinion surveys, psychological tests like the Implicit Association Test, and several experiments that one can do (and I have done) time and again with white audiences, all with the same result: namely, confirmation that the “typical” white person (and I include myself in that by the way) does harbor internalized notions of white racial superiority or “betterness,” vis-a-vis African Americans.

Looking first at public opinion surveys just over the past fifteen years or so, roughly six in ten whites, by our own admission, adhere to at least one negative racial stereotype about blacks. According to a National Opinion Research Center survey in the early ’90s, over sixty percent of whites believe that blacks are generally lazier than other groups, fifty-six percent say that blacks are generally more prone to violence, and over half say that blacks are generally less intelligent than other groups (1). What makes these beliefs racist is that by assuming that blacks are more “prone” to violence and “less intelligent,” respondents are not merely signaling that blacks have higher crime rates, or score lower on various indicia of academic achievement–both of which are true, for reasons owing to the opportunity structure and the location of black communities relative to that structure–but instead are making assumptions about the inherent abilities and characters of black people.

A similar survey from 1993, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, found that three in four whites accept as true at least one racist stereotype about African Americans, regarding such items as general laziness, propensity to criminality and violence, intelligence, or work ethic. And according to a 2001 survey, sixty percent of whites, approximately, admit that they believe at least one negative and racist stereotype of blacks: for example, that they are generally lazy, generally aggressive or violent, or prefer to live on welfare rather than work for a living (2). In fact, the belief in black preference for welfare over work is typically the most commonly believed of the stereotypes; this, despite the fact that only a very small percentage of African Americans–and for that matter, a minority of even poor African Americans–receive benefits from programs typically considered “welfare.”

Interestingly, whites often deny the importance of racism in determining the life chances of blacks, even as they give voice to beliefs that are themselves evidence of the very racial prejudice they deny. So, for instance, in one of the more respected opinion surveys from the 1990s, six in ten whites said that discrimination was less important in determining the position of blacks in society, than the “fact” that blacks “just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” But if most whites believe that blacks as a group are unmotivated or lazy, that is itself a racial generalization amounting to racism: ascribing a negative characterological trait to blacks as a group. Of course the irony should be apparent to all: on the one hand, whites are saying that blacks are lazy, but on the other they insist that racism–including the kind that holds African Americans in this low regard–would be of very little consequence to their ability to succeed; as if people imbued with that kind of bias would be able to fairly evaluate job applicants or students who were members of the presumed defective group!

Other studies stretching back nearly forty years have indicated a significant degree of white racial bias towards blacks, which we are almost always loath to acknowledge. But in one set of studies, when whites were told (falsely as it turns out) that they were hooked up to functioning lie detectors that would be able to ascertain if they were being dishonest when they claimed not to have any racist beliefs about blacks, they were far more likely to indicate biases up front. In other words, whites often deny our racial biases, even when those remain deeply ingrained. Research has suggested, for example, that many persons will feign a more liberal and non-prejudicial attitude than that to which they actually adhere, when asked questions about racial “others” on opinion surveys. Meaning that if roughly six in ten whites are willing to admit to serious anti-black prejudices of one form or another, the real percentages holding those beliefs are likely quite a bit larger.

Implicit Association Tests are even more decisive as to the extent of internalized and often subconscious, but nonetheless real, white racism. These tests, which measure response time to visual stimuli–specifically testing how quickly respondents associate briefly shown images of blacks or whites with either positive or negative words that are also briefly flashed on a screen–suggest that the typical white person does indeed harbor racial biases against African Americans. According to the research:

“…when given a test of unconscious stereotyping, nearly ninety percent of whites who have taken the test implicitly associate the faces of black Americans with negative words and traits such as evil character or failure. That is, they have more trouble linking black faces to pleasant words and positive features than they do for white faces. Most whites show an antiblack, pro-white bias on psychological tests. In addition, when whites are shown photos of black faces, even for only thirty milliseconds, key areas of their brains that are designed to respond to perceived threats light up automatically.” (3)

In my own work I have often conducted word association exercises, in which I ask participants to honestly tell me the first thing that pops in their heads when they hear certain words. Although there is no way to verify their answers, since I am relying on them to be honest, even in this non-controlled environment, in which participants could easily lie in order to seem less racist than they are in practice, the answers are quite revealing. When asked to envision a criminal, a person buying groceries with food stamps (or an electronic benefits card), a drug dealer or user, or a pregnant teenager, almost all white participants (and even large numbers of participants of color) respond that their first image was that of someone who was black or Latino/a. This, despite the fact that over half of all crime is committed by non-Hispanic whites, most people using food stamps are white, more than seven in ten drug users are white (as are most dealers), and most pregnant teens are white as well. Although people of color have higher rates of crime, or welfare receipt, or teen pregnancies, it is simply false that the typical representative of any of these groups is black or brown. Thus, for people to think of a person of color when those words are mentioned is to acknowledge implicit biases, rooted in the conditioning that comes from numerous sources, media first and foremost among them.

On the other hand, if I ask people to envision an “all-American boy or girl,” or even worse, God, they invariably admit to envisioning white images (in the latter case, even those who admit to being atheists, because of the symbolic conditioning to which they have been subjected). Confirming my own experiments, researchers who have asked white focus group members to envision a “typical drug user,” report that upwards of 95 percent of whites report envisioning a black person, despite the fact that blacks only represent thirteen percent of all drug users, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, while whites comprise approximately 70 percent of all drug users (4).

Of course, none of this should be interpreted to imply that whites are inherently racist, as if because of something intrinsic to our culture or biology. White bias against black folks is the direct result of environmental conditioning: media images that over-represent blacks as criminals relative to the share of crime that they commit, and images that, at least since the early ’70s, have overrepresented blacks as members of the welfare-dependent “underclass,” relative to the percentages of the long-term poor who are actually black. If one is subjected repeatedly to images of God, or all-American kids that are white, it ought not surprise anyone that such images would become ingrained in the minds of white folks, and many folks of color as well. Likewise, if one is repeatedly subjected to negative imagery of blacks–imagery that represents them as pathological and culturally defective–how shocking should it be that such images would influence the way in which whites come to view African Americans and their communities?

This is why it was ultimately so easy for whites to believe the stories coming out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which suggested that black folks were raping and killing people en masse in the Superdome and Convention Center. These reports, all of which turned out to be false, and which were exposed as false by the media about a month after the city flooded (retractions that many Americans never heard, it should be noted), were never questioned at the time they were being reported by any mainstream media outlet. Looking at the comment boards on Nola.com during the tragedy–the main website for the city’s newspaper and media outlets–one could find hundreds of racist comments from whites who had bought the claims of black depravity, and were advocating machine-gunning those responsible, and letting the masses who were stuck downtown starve to death, because they were “animals” who didn’t “deserve to be saved.”

Needless to say, were a hurricane to take out Nantucket, or destroy the summer homes of the white and wealthy who vacation on Cape Cod, and were the media to broadcast rumors to the effect that rich white folks were raping and killing people in the local Episcopal church, no one would believe the reports without evidence, without bodies, without proof. But because of racism, you can say anything you like about black people, especially when they’re poor, and others will believe it, every word of it, without question.

So until white folks can demonstrate that we have transcended our racist conditioning, and until we no longer confirm our anti-black biases in test after test, and survey after survey, our defensiveness (indeed, outright anger) at the comments of Barack Obama, makes me wonder if we may be protesting just a bit too much, and giving away our hand in the process. To the extent there are some white folks who don’t envision a black person when they hear the term “drug user,” or who don’t see a white man when they hear the term “God,” or who don’t automatically think of an Arab Muslim when the term terrorist gets thrown around (because after all, there have been hundreds of terrorist bombings and arsons at abortion clinics by white Christians in the U.S. in the last two decades, not to mention the Unabomber, the Olympic Park Bomber, or Tim McVeigh), then so be it. But such persons shouldn’t get defensive on behalf of the majority of our white brothers and sisters who still think exactly those things: rather, they should be challenging them, and encouraging them to break out of the racist box into which years of conditioning have placed us–all of us, to at least some extent.

Our anger should be aimed at those who, by virtue of their racism, implicate us all in the sickness, rather than at those who merely point out that we indeed, are still carrying the virus.


(1) Tom W. Smith, “Ethnic Images,” GSS Technical Report No. 19, Chicago: NORC, January 1991

(2) Lawrence Bobo, “Inequalities That Endure? Racial Ideology, American Politics, and the Peculiar Role of the Social Sciences,” in Maria Krysan and Amanda Lewis, eds. The Changing Terrain of Race and Ethnicity. Russell Sage Foundation: 2004: 19-20

(3) Joe Feagin, Systemic Racism. NY: Routledge, 2006: 26

(4) B.W. Burston, D. Jones, and P. Robertson-Saunders, “Drug use and African-Americans: Myth versus reality.” Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. 40(2), 1995:19-39.

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