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.
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.
“Part of white fragility is to assume that when we talk about racism, we are calling someone out as being individually a racist,” he (Tim Wise) 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.”
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.