It may be the case that better educated people are simply better at covering up their racist tendencies.
By Neerali Patel
For me, the biggest takeaway from the 2016 presidential election and its outcome is a lingering and building curiosity about the “other.”
Perhaps due to my urban life and cosmopolitan worldview, the closest I can get to explaining–and understanding–this elusive, esoteric “other” often takes the form of Michael Moore articles and documentaries about the economically struggling, Trump-voting Rust Belt. More recently, I’ve also explored this “other” in J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which explores and exposes the generations-deep culture of the people in a small steel town in Ohio.
Many of my liberal, well-educated friends have spoken with confident disdain of those “others” who landed Trump in office—rural, racist, and uneducated voters who were keen to elect a deeply immoral man to the most influential political position in the world.
Maybe this confident attitude stems from the fact that highly educated people tend to think of themselves as progressive, as sociologist Geoffrey Wodtke has uncovered—making it easy to demonize those who are uneducated as ideologically backward.
But I am not convinced that this narrative surrounding the “other” is just, or even accurate. Specifically, I’m talking about the reinforcement of a very harmful stereotype—that of the “uneducated racist.”
This contempt may seem well-warranted. But the idea that only poor, uneducated people can be racist is deeply classist and elitist. Moreover, it’s just plain wrong.
According to a study conducted by researchers Toon Kuppens and Russell Spears, well-educated people are not less likely to be racist—they just tend to be what’s known as aversive racists.
Aversive racism refers to those who express judgemental attitudes toward racial/ethnic minorities by persistently avoiding them or otherwise harming them in subtle ways. One seminal study on aversive racism, for instance, found that white people recommended Black candidates with the same marginal credentials as white candidates 20% less often. Test subjects never stated outright that Black people were inferior—but they clearly expressed judgemental attitudes toward them.
In some ways, aversive racism is even more frightening than traditional racism, because it allows for a kind of subterfuge. According to Wodtke, being more intelligent doesn’t stop people from being racist—it simply makes them better at covering it up. I don’t mean covering it up in the way one thinks of a carefully executed CIA covert operation. I am referring to lifestyle dynamics.
Think of the affluent, white spaces that aren’t necessarily situated in the confederate flag waving lawns of the South or the Trump voting Rust Belt. Where the populace is well-educated and politically correct in speech, but perhaps in speech only. I think to the wealthy, liberal college campus spaces I’ve occupied, where I was surrounded by countless incredibly intelligent students who sternly disassociated with any mention of racism, but who also rarely if ever associated with marginalized communities (namely, low income communities of color). While what I was witnessing may not necessarily be a wholly accurate example of aversive racism, it is certainly a set of dynamics that makes aversive racism more likely to take hold.
In the case of Trump, much attention has been paid to his uneducated, racist voters. There has also been outcry–rightly so–over people like the white-supremacy-affiliated Steve K. Bannon, who is overtly racist (and, interestingly, highly educated as well).
But aversive racism among Trump’s inner circle must not be overlooked.
Take, for example, Andrew F. Puzder, Trump’s initial choice for Secretary of Labor (now resigned). Puzder has a BA in history from Cleveland State University and a law degree from Washington University. He has never said anything overtly discriminatory, as Bannon or some Trump voters have.
But he is definitely racist.
As CEO of CKE restaurants, the company that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, Puzder has implemented policies that directly harm people of color. He opposes the minimum wage, and has pushed for robots/computers to replace low-wage workers altogether.
Almost anyone who works in the service industry knows that many low-income people of color occupy this space. The percentage of Latinos (40.4) and African Americans (31.2) that occupy jobs in the low-wage service industry is significantly greater than that of white Americans (20). So while Mr. Puzder isn’t known to be hostile toward minorities through his speech and demeanor, the way he approaches business—what he considers to be good business—comes undeniably at the expense of minorities. And bringing these already damaging practices to a national scale would mean making more marginalized Americans suffer.
Similarly, there is no room for calling Betsy DeVos, who has been named the Secretary of Education, anything other than an aversive racist. DeVos is not only well educated—she earned a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College in business administration and political science—she is a philanthropist and education activist, making it easy to assume she cares about civic duty and providing opportunity for all, especially those who exist at the fringes of our society. Like Puzder, she has also never said anything overtly discriminatory.
But she, too, is most definitely is racist (and, as the confirmation hearings have illuminated to painful effect, ableist).
In Detroit, where she wielded enormous influence over educational policy, DeVos turned schools, which should be a public service, into a machine for profit. And her initiatives to turn schools into money-makers have disproportionately disadvantaged low-income, African American, and Latino communities, leaving them with the most abysmal and consistently underperforming charter schools.
As the former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan and chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children, DeVos has been a shining light to members of the movement dedicated to privatizing public education. She has worked to create programs and pass laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition in the form of vouchers and similar programs.
She has also pushed hard on schools of choice, where districts open their borders to kids from other jurisdictions. In concept, this could be a great equalizer: Children from poor districts could attend schools that have many more resources. But in practice, it has played out differently. In districts in Michigan that participate in choice, white and more affluent parents have fled sooner and minority kids have come into previously white schools, establishing de facto segregation, according to a report by Bridge magazine.
DeVos isn’t an educator or an education leader, but she will continue to scale the policies and practices she’s put in place in Michigan on a national level as the Secretary of Education. And it will result in creating greater distance between white America and the rest of America.
So what conclusions can we—should we—draw definitively from all this?
Perhaps that the uneducated Americans we so often dismiss for their “backwardness” are not necessarily the poster children for American racism. In fact, in fixating on this population, we reinforce the detrimental stereotype of the uneducated racist, while overlooking the power of aversive racism.
Aversive racism is dangerous because it cannot be observed at face value, and cannot be heard through the use of certain words. It is nuanced, complex, and often hidden behind the veil of erudite political correctness.
And here’s another important point—it’s not just those associated with Trump who can be aversive racists. Educated, ostensibly progressive liberals can say and do things that affect marginalized communities, even as they never outwardly express discriminatory beliefs.
“…while liberal individuals might be more outwardly friendly towards minorities, they are also more affected by subtle biases they are unaware of. A bias an individual is not aware of is also a bias they are unable to confront and overcome….[In addition], studies have shown that white, liberal employers will almost always give an open position to a highly qualified black applicant over anyone else. No racism there, right? The problem arises when a white candidate and a black candidate are equally qualified for a position. In almost every instance, a black candidate and a white candidate with the exact same credentials will result in the white person being hired.
As a well-educated American myself, I know that it would be more useful to analyze the life I lead—the people/institutions/structures I affiliate with—than to point fingers. I may not be an active aversive racist, but I also don’t think I stand on moral high ground because of my liberal, educated, diverse urban background.