Does patriotism have a race?
Apparently, The Washington Post seems to think so. They recently published a piece entitled, “To many Americans, being patriotic means being white.” In the article, author Michael Tesler argues that Americans tend to view patriots as mostly white men and women.
Tesler cites a few studies that back up his claim that Americans view whites as the prototype for patriotism. The reason he gives for this phenomenon is, you guessed it: Racism!
WaPo Argues That Whites Are Seen as More Patriotic
The Washington Post argues that whites are considered to be more patriotic because they are the dominant group in the United States. They cite Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto’s theory of social dominance, which states that “politically dominant groups” take “ownership of the nation.” This puts forth the idea that nationality and ethnicity are relevant because both of these traits have empowered whites to define the image of the prototypical American.
The Post contends that whites who “feel a sense of solidarity with other whites” feel a stronger connection to symbols of patriotism like the American flag and the national anthem. Quoting data from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES), they state that 90% of whites who have strong attachments to their racial group indicated that seeing the flag made them feel “extremely good.” Only a quarter of those who scored low in the category of white racial solidarity gave the same answer.
The article goes on to discuss how Americans of different races view patriotism. They reference a June 1995 NBC poll which revealed that individuals of all races saw the American patriot as a white person. They also discuss a 2012 ANES survey that showed that only 28% of whites believed black Americans were patriotic while 51% viewed whites as patriots.
Of course, the author of the piece also claims that racism causes whites to believe that black Americans are not as patriotic. He cites a study done by The Washington Post that uses a “racial resentment scale” to determine the level of a person’s racism in relation to their opinions on the NFL protests.
The scale asks respondents whether they agree/disagree, agree/disagree strongly, or neither agree/disagree with the following statements:
- Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
- Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
- It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
- Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
The National Review’s Ian Tuttle rightly points out that the way someone might answer questions could have more to do with their values than race. He points out that the creators of the survey admitted as much:
“Adherence to traditional values—without concomitant racial prejudice—could drive Whites’ responses to SR [symbolic racism] measures and their opinions on racial policy issues. For example, Whites’ devotion to true equality may lead them to oppose what they might view as inherently inequitable policies, such as affirmative action because it provides advantages for some social groups and not others. Similarly, affirmative action may be perceived to violate the traditional principle of judging people on their merits, not their skin color. Consequently, opposition to such policies may result from their perceived violation of widely and closely held principles rather than racism.”
It’s not surprising that the author would identify racism as the primary reason why whites are patriotic — it is The Washington Post, after all. However, it is entirely likely that respondents’ answers might be informed by factors that are unrelated to race — like traditional values.
Issues With WaPo’s Argument
Tesler makes some interesting points in his piece, but his arguments have serious flaws.
While the 2016 ANES survey reveals that 90% of whites who feel a strong attachment to their race are more likely to view patriotic symbols favorably, it does not indicate what percentage of whites overall feel a connection to their racial group. In other words, it doesn’t show that the majority of whites feel a connection to patriotic symbols primarily because of their race.
The NBC poll showing that whites don’t believe that most blacks are patriotic is compelling, but it doesn’t answer an important question: why do they feel that way? Do whites have this belief because they think the oppression blacks have suffered in America has made them less patriotic? Have they merely not interacted with enough blacks to know whether they are patriotic or not?
While studies do not address what whites believe about the issue of historical oppression, there is data supporting the idea that many whites have not interacted with enough black people to know their level of patriotism.
The Washington Post previously reported that three-quarters of white Americans do not have any non-white friends. They write:
“In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race.”
Now, before you start jumping on The Post for implying that whites don’t have minority friends because they’re all raging bigots, I’ll point out that they’re not making that argument here. Yes, I know you’re shocked.
They note that the breakdown of the nation’s demographics explains this disparity. Put simply, there are far more whites than blacks in the United States. Currently, whites make up 63% of the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, In 28 out of the 50 states, blacks make up less than 10% of the population. Also, people tend to gravitate towards those who look like them. See? Not racist at all.
Is Patriotism Based on Race?
While there is compelling data about the correlation between race and patriotism, the information presented by The Post does not prove that Americans view patriotism solely on skin color. The simpler, and far more likely, reason whites could be perceived as more patriotic is that they make up the majority of the population.
Chances are if you’re going to see a patriotic person on television, it’s going to be a white person. Can you remember the last time you saw a news report that featured a black person waving the flag? Exactly. But the real question is: are black Americans patriotic? We’ll explore that in the next part of this series.