For the annual ASA conference in Atlanta, the session on racism and antiracism (organized by Eileen O’Brien) was divided into two, held back-to-back in the same room. With my presentation in the second of the two, I had a chance to catch the discussion portion of the first session, with Charles Gallagher present. As expected, the room was packed (and unfortunately most left after their session had ended). I was (at least somewhat) taken aback at how optimistic Gallagher was with the alleged absence of racism among young white people today. I wish more had been in attendance for my session that followed (including Gallagher), or that I had presented my material for that session, because my research paints a very different picture of young whites than what Gallagher sees.
Granted, I’m not saying that young whites today are tripping over themselves to join the Klan or anything. But a complete absence of racism? In my presentation titled “‘It’s not on the news, so…’: Ambivalence towards White Supremacy Among White College Students,” I presented evidence about how white college students go out of their way to not see white supremacist activities, while defending their right to exist and even flourish. They seem to feel it necessary to say that white supremacists and their organizations are a serious problem in our society, yet contradict themselves when they call them impotent, ridiculous, limited to the south, etc. This contradiction creates an ambivalence towards these groups, and whether intended or not, this ambivalence towards white supremacy assists in efforts to protect white supremacist speech.
I mentioned a couple of examples from the interviews that I found to be most intriguing. The first was Odella, who told me of an incident involving “good ole southern boys” burning “a black doll” in effigy on the grounds of her high school. She immediately minimized the incident, saying it had been resolved and called it “an isolated event.” Incredibly, later on when discussing the significance of white supremacists and their organizations today, she said:
“I don’t think white supremacy is a serious problem in our society, I know it exists, but um (.) maybe I just don’t see it (.) like maybe in other places it’s more prominent, but…”
After asking her if that incident at her high school constituted white supremacy, she answered “yeah, probably” but said it was “spur of the moment” and that these good ole boys had simply made a bad decision.
The other example came from Troy, who rationalized discriminatory behavior in the pursuit of profit. When he recalled his “training” as a club bouncer he provided extensive details on who he was supposed to keep out of the establishment: baggy jeans, Fubu clothes, and Timbaland boots, and most of all, black skin. Although he seemed to struggle with the racist thinking of his boss at one time, he said “it sounds terrible but it’s kind of like the line from The Godfather ‘It’s business, not personal,’” and saying it’s alright if “they’ve got bills to pay.” He admitted that the whole point of the dress codes those establishments enforce are a way to keep blacks out (“because they can’t just come out and say ‘all right black people [don’t] come in’ so they have to make a dress code and basically they find stuff that applied to [the] black crowd and say ‘you can’t come in wearing that’”).
Although these are just a couple of examples from the research, there were many others that showed young white people are generally ambivalent towards white supremacists and their organizations. I believe that this attitude makes it virtually impossible to get the needed public policies and societal resources to fight these groups and to protect the rights of those they seek to harm. I wish I were as optimistic as Gallagher is about our young white children today, but for now I say wait 10 or 20 years and see where they will be and how they behave.