White Self-Interest is Not the Same Thing as Racism

In the Financial Times, David Goodhart has an op-ed titled “White self-interest is not the same thing as racism

… Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist…

The challenge here is to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics, or what Muslim-American writer Shadi Hamid terms white “racial self-interest”. The latter may be clannish and insular, but it is not the same as irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group — the normal definition of racism.

Goodhart links to this new, 63-page study by Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London (“‘Racial Self-Interest’ Is Not Racism: Ethno-demographic interests and the immigration debate”), the Executive Summary of which reads:

The growing success of right-wing populism in the West feeds off those who dislike ethnic change, alienating them from those who embrace it. Previous research, and Trump’s deployment of ‘political correctness’ as a red   flag for conservative voters, suggests accusations of racism levelled at anti-immigration parties and voters contributes to conservatives’ mistrust of elites. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution is an influential Muslim-American writer who argues that it is important to distinguish racism and racial self-interest, and that Trump supporters, who voted in a racially self-interested way to limit immigration, should not be accused of racism. David Goodhart adds that the term racism has been subject to mission creep such that those in public debate cannot draw a distinction between group partiality and a racism based on the fear, hatred or disparagement of outgroups. In his words, ‘we need to distinguish more clearly between the greater comfort people often feel among familiar people and places and active hostility towards outsider ethnic groups.’

Using survey and qualitative data, this work shows that a majority of American and British people of all races believe that when the white majority seeks lower immigration to help maintain their population share, this is racially self-interested rather than racist behaviour. This distinction is important because racism is a taboo, whereas ethnic self-interest, like individual self-interest, is viewed as a normal. It doesn’t pack the same emotive punch and thus is more likely to provoke debate than division.

The racism/racial self-interest distinction matters. White conservatives whose immigration stance is influenced by a desire to slow decline in their group’s share of the population rather than due to an irrational fear of  outgroups, feel accused of racism. This breeds resentment. My research on Trump, Clinton, Brexit and Remain voters shows that white liberals are especially likely to level the racism charge at whites who desire fewer immigrants to maintain their group’s demographic position. Meanwhile, too many white conservatives accuse minorities who want more of ‘their own’ to immigrate of being racist. However, when presented with questions about both whites and minorities wanting to adjust immigration policies in their favour, and when asked to justify their pattern of responses, both liberals and conservatives converge toward bipartisanship. Here, perhaps, is common ground that can bring the two sides together.

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