When white voters elected Donald Trump, pundits offered “economic anxiety” as an explanation, crowing at anyone who suggested white racial decline might be a factor. Almost two years later, we know white anxiety was. And we’re starting to see the discourse and data to back it up.
New York Times opinion writer Charles M. Blow mainstreamed the term “white extinction anxiety” a few weeks ago. The hashtag #WhiteExtinctionAnxiety soon overtook Twitter as people buzzed about the new catch-all term describing white racial insecurity in America.
Fears about the end of white people aren’t new. People like Rachel Wetts, who studies racial political dynamics, understand how deeply rooted white extinction anxiety is. In fact, it’s at the core of the University of California, Berkeley sociologist’s research.
Wetts’ recent paper “Privilege on the Precipice” explores white voters’ negative attitudes toward welfare programs. After Wetts and co-author Rob Willer presented participants with information depicting white racial status decline, white voters’ opposition to welfare programs and racial resentment increased significantly.
“We’ve known for a long time that whites’ racial resentment is correlated with how they feel about welfare programs,” Wetts says. “And we know that white Americans tend to misperceive these programs as benefiting minorities rather than whites.”
Welfare programs don’t disproportionately benefit non-white populations. In fact, social welfare reliance is fairly even among races. But the idea is deeply rooted among white populations and how they view minorities, particularly African Americans. Wetts’s research draws from Martin Gilles’s work on the racial coding of welfare, published in 1996. He concluded “racial attitudes” toward black Americans were “the single most important influence of whites’ welfare views.”
But Gilles’ research didn’t draw a causal link—in other words, he didn’t find that racial resentment caused whites to oppose social welfare programs; merely that the two sentiments were related.
“It’s been discussed a lot, but the actual evidence of what kinds of policy and political attitudes these feelings can trigger has been less clear,” Wetts says. “Especially around social welfare programs.”
Wetts and Willer aimed to find that causal link in their study. In one experiment, they presented participants with population projections and minority income growth—statistics that indicate white racial status decline. Then, they asked them to allocate federal funds as if they were Congress members. Consistently, participants cut funding for social welfare programs across the board.
White extinction anxiety is an effective term. We know whites are afraid of declining status. But say this stuff out loud and you’ll get tut-tutted by legacy media and “upstanding” political types obsessed with both sides-ism and bemoaning identity politics.
Studies like Wetts’s establish concrete evidence behind opinions people already could’ve guessed about. White Americans’ attitudes towards welfare are caused (at least in part) by their racial resentment, and the fears of whites’ declining status can increase that racial resentment. This study bolsters longtime speculation with scientific testing.
“When there’s a big public conversation, it’s important to know what opinions have evidence and rigorous scientific techniques behind them,” Wetts says. “Our research is part of that.”
One study doesn’t prove the political danger and longstanding damage of white resentment. Neither does a phrase like white extinction anxiety. But both are a start in defining and understanding a sentiment that has dominated American society for generations.