This scenario has repeated itself too many times to be coincidence. An 8-year-old child shot and killed by officers while she slept, a 17-year-old killed by police in his own home, a 22-year-old immediately shot and killed in a Wal-Mart, and many more cases of unarmed African Americans immediately getting shot down and labeled as menaces. While on the other side of reality, the Aurora shooter, Timothy McVeigh, and many other armed mass killers were arrested without a scratch on them.
The most dangerous uprising that's threatening America's stability isn't black protests in places like Ferguson or Baltimore. It's taking place among an aging white majority that is losing its bearing on reality and destroying the gears of government, media and public welfare. At its center is an inexplicable, illogical and dangerous fear that some sociologists are now defining as white fragility.
I have witnessed this strange phenomenon intensifying over the last several years, but I first became aware of it immediately after the election of Barack Obama.
On the Wednesday after the 2008 election, I drove from Cleveland to Columbus to catch an afternoon flight back to New York City. Out of curiosity I scanned the AM dials until I found a few conservative political talk shows. The sustained and palpable panic was amusing at first, then outrageously funny, before settling into deeply disconcerting. Despite the fact that virtually every poll had shown Obama as the predicted winner for weeks, the election results felt like a political Pearl Harbor for some.
Conservative callers were predicting the end of democracy, how 2008 might be the last election ever held in America, how the economy was going to be destroyed. In some exchanges the radio host egged on the callers’ conspiracies, while other times he warned listeners to be afraid: Taxes were going to skyrocket for the average working family, gas prices would climb. Rush Limbaugh encouraged everyone to start referring to the economic blight rendered by President George W. Bush’s administration as ‘the Obama economy.” And so they did. He proposed that all the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan were now Obama’s fault. And so they are. He predicted the end of American dream. And so they have worked to see the fulfillment of their prophecy.
These callers were borderline hysterical. Even though I couldn’t see what they looked like, I could make a safe guess as to the age and race of the average listener. As I sat in my rental car listening to the unfolding audio riot of an aging generation, it felt like I was at an unveiling of some absurdly humorous and horrific performance art piece. I was watching the polite mask fall away from a hateful, illogical and destructive mindset that has thrived for hundreds of years and is still going strong today: white fragility.
White fragility is a termed coined by Robin DiAngelo, an associate professor of education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. In her 2011 academic pedagogical analysis titled “White Fragility,” DiAngelo goes into a detailed explanation of how white people in North America live in insulated social and media spaces that protect them from any race-based stress. This privileged fragility leaves them unable to tolerate any schism or challenge to a universally accepted belief system. Any shift away from that (like a biracial African-American president) triggers a deep and sustaining panic. Racial segregation, disproportionate representation in the media, and many other factors serve as the columns that support white fragility. Professor DiAngelo said she came up with the term when she was a diversity trainer for the state of Washington.
“The participants were mostly white, working [in] offices that were 98 percent white, living lives of never having to see people of color, and they were incredibly hostile and mean when discussing anything about race,” said DiAngelo, who’s white. “Some guys would pound their fists on the table in fury at being in a room where this discussion was taking place, many sulked silently.”
DiAngelo began reframing the conversation in a more constructive way in order to get participants to see how power structures of racial supremacy work in their lives. The misunderstanding was caused by misidentification of what white privilege and power means. Privilege doesn’t mean automatic wealth and health. What “white privilege” means is that society is rooting for one particular segment of the population to succeed over all others, and has installed a disproportionately high amount of institutional and psychological helpers every step of the way.
Author and public speaker Tim Wise said he has encountered similar confusion.
“Part of white fragility is to assume that when we talk about racism, we are calling someone out as being individually a racist,” he said. “So if you say we're going to talk about racism, white people think you're going to call them a name. But for most people of color it's a system. And we're talking about dealing with a structure so the real problem is the system.”
When separate groups of people are using the same word with different implied meanings then problems will persist. When it comes to racism and increased segregation, both Wise and DiAngelo noted that there seems to be this rigid unwillingness to address any inequality, because it would upset the very people who are both benefiting from the injustice and refusing to acknowledge its existence.
The fear is that if someone seeks to define and fix racism, many white people feel like they’re being directly attacked. So instead of waiting for the attack, white fragility promotes protection by putting punitive restrictions on “the others.”
The Obama era has been an interesting petri dish of white fragility. On the heels of a moderate economic recovery, we’ve seen sweeping new state laws aimed at social issues: voting rights restrictions, defunding of Planned Parenthood, anti-gay legislation, Stand Your Ground bills, and restrictive union laws to weaken their bargaining power. These laws have resulted in a rollback of rights for minorities, women, the LGBT movement, and the working class.
The marketing angle used for many of these legislations is that the white, straight, Christian status quo is threatened. New voter restrictions have been enacted in over 20 states to address fraud issues that did not and do not exist. But the restrictive laws will hurt minority communities. Stand Your Ground was an NRA boilerplate bill aimed encouraging a shoot-first cowboy mentality of murdering another person simply on the appearance of a threat. Anti-gay marriage amendments are passed to “protect traditional marriage.” The goal of defunding Planned Parenthood is to “protect life.”
The strangest thing about white fragility politics is that the detrimental policy results are spread out across race and class. Yet, the political results for the conservative movement priming the pump of white fragility and rage is election victories. And why should they change when they can get large sections of an aging white population to consistently vote for policies proven to statistically hurt their economic chances, personal health, their children’s education, and their very safety?
What do you say to a state like Indiana that rolls back Planned Parenthood for political points based in white fragility and then watches as HIV infection rates explode in the community? What can be said of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the legislators who knowingly bankrupt the state’s treasury to promote an economic philosophy of tax cuts to the wealthy that result in fewer services, broken infrastructure, suffering in schools, and—in the long run—more deaths? These are not rational decisions. These are fear-based politics that create avoidable disasters in which all suffer. This new wave of segregation fear is surging across the country. In response to the continued white fragility panic of 2008, conservative political movements are set to capitalize on the cycles of manufactured hysteria.
“We are watching the repeal of the 20th century,” Wise said.
Despite these social rollbacks, economic doomsday predictions under an Obama administration has turned into a fairly strong recovery. The stock market is soaring, unemployment rates are falling, and gas prices are down. The United States stands as one of the few countries to have not only recovered from the Great Recession, but to be somewhat thriving. It would seem like now would be the perfect moment to push the issue of white privilege and fragility forward. After the Ferguson movement and videotapes of countless unarmed black men and women being murdered by police, it seems like this nation might be headed toward some moment of truth: the start of a movement toward greater justice for all.
“I get emails saying ‘you’re a disgusting human being’ and people are just upset,” Di Angelo said. “They’re upset that they have been challenged and they can’t really handle it.”
When I asked Wise and DiAngelo to give me something hopeful for the future, they both gave me a bleak picture. When I suggested that more facts and evidence could sway people, they disagreed.
“People who are deeply committed to a world view don’t change their opinions when confronted with new facts,” Wise said. “Oddly enough, new facts cause them to dig in more deeply.”
Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect that police would have wanted Tamir Rice to be charged for his conduct prior to the shooting. Rice was not actually charged. It was also updated to reflect that it has not yet been established whether the victims in Waco were killed by bikers or police or both.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.