The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Researching Backlash

Jerry Carrier, Senior Consultant and Trainer, Carrier & Associates

Jerry CarrierJerry Carrier is a nationally recognized instructor in diversity, American culture, class, community development and poverty issues, and is the principal and senior consultant and trainer for Carrier & Associates. He has presented workshops at several recent MDHR Human Rights Day conferences, focusing on the role of class in American society, how we are different, and the changing nature of intolerance in America. He shared his thoughts and research on intolerance, civility and backlash in an interview.

Comments from Jerry Carrier

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Question: What do you believe is causing what appears to be an increased lack of civility in public discourse, and the anger and hostility that appears to be increasing among some Americans?

Jerry Carrier: There are multiple causes. A big piece of it is that the pie is getting smaller and smaller, so competition for that piece of pie is getting a lot more intense. And everybody is sure that everyone else is getting a larger slice.

Is the hostility that some Americans apparently feel toward Americans increasing, and more of a factor today than it was 10 or 20 years ago?

I think it is heightened — I don't know if it is increasing. We are becoming more polarized. Now somewhere between 15 and 25  percent of people are certain that they are getting short shrift in all this — that either women, or minorities, or someone is getting more than they're getting, and they are getting it because they have an unfair advantage.

Who are the people who believe that they are getting short shrift?

It's principally working class whites, who are mostly — but not all — rural. There are other groups, too, that feel some of those stresses as well. But if you were going to do a poster person for that movement, it would be a rural, white male, who probably is earning under $30,000 a year. In some ways it's frightening, because it mirrors what Germany went through in the 1920s and 30s. We are seeing the same type of group that's saying, "someone has stolen my future."

Is there something that our society has in common with the Germany of the 1920s and 30s, that is creating the same dynamic?

We have similar cultures — part of that is our religious heritage, and people get real touchy when you start talking about that. But a lot of that venom and so forth is coming out of that religious right.

In previous presentations you have suggested there is evidence that America is becoming more tolerant. Do you still see increased tolerance as well as increased hostility?

Yes. And I think that the evidence of that is the election of Barack Obama. When you ask Americans, would you vote for a qualified person for president who was African American, right now it's between 13 and 15 percent who say no — which is the same percentage, interestingly enough, who would not vote for a woman. And at the same time, intolerance against Latinos and Hispanics is rising. As we talk more and more about illegal immigrants, the number of Americans who say they would not vote for a Latino is going up. In the last survey I saw, 23 or 24 percent said they wouldn't vote for an Asian for president, but I think Latinos have topped Asians now.

Does research suggest that intolerance toward African Americans has increased or decreased since the election of Barack Obama?

I'd say that's fairly static right now, but it has become heightened. It used to be that there were people who didn't want to see an African American president, but they weren't that vociferous about it. But now you're seeing that that hard core group really is quite adamant, to the point where it could be dangerous.

You suggest that it's partly the economy, and the feeling that the pie is shrinking, that is making some Americans increasingly resent others —

I think that intensifies things. I don't think it necessarily changes people's viewpoints, but it magnifies and intensifies them.

Those who are concerned about immigration have been heard to complain that Hispanics are taking "their" jobs. But other groups seem to be targeted for backlash, too, including the GLBT community. What accounts for the hostility toward those who  are GLBT?

With gays and lesbians, it's a cultural thing. You're looking at people who think that their culture and that their beliefs are disappearing, which to some extent is true. We are becoming much more accepting to the GLBT population, and as that happens, the folks who are opposed to that are getting strident about it. This is something that is not in keeping with what they view as their cultural beliefs and their code of ethics and their religion. It's very definitely a cultural and religious thing.

America is changing demographically, and it appears that at some point, Caucasians will no longer be in the majority. As America continues to change, will the cultural wars grow more heated? Will Americans who feel that their culture is disappearing become even more vocal?

I think things are going to get a lot more intense before they get better. It's kind of like a lightbulb — it burns brighter, before it burns out. And that's exactly the pressure that you're seeing. It's a pretty predictable thing in terms of cultural anthropology. I think in some regards, Europe has already been through that process, and the United States is on a fairly predictable curve. The temperature is rising. It's the most strident who feel that their country is being taken away, and that quite honestly is dangerous, because some of that can be very violent.

What can we do to bring down the temperature — what are the solutions to the increasing lack of civility that seems to undermine our ability to get along with each other?

If you understand what's happening, whatever your own personal beliefs are, I think that helps significantly. The other part of it is that obviously, it's real easy to be a racist if you don't know anybody of a different race. It gets more difficult when you start knowing the folks, and having to start dealing with them on a daily basis. That's happening to a good degree, including in rural areas. Even 10 years ago, if you lived in small-town, rural Minnesota, your chances of running into a minority and actually working out a personal relationship with somebody of a different race was pretty small. That's not true anymore. And there are large Latino, Somali and Russian-speaking populations all over the state.

So you are saying there is reason to be optimistic, even if things may be more difficult in the short term?

Right. Once you get the racial stuff out of the way, it always comes down to class, and you watch racial and ethnic differences disappear when groups have the same economic concerns. For example, in rural Minnesota, at a factory where whites and Latinos were working, the whites didn't like the Latinos, and so forth. But all of the sudden, when there was almost a strike, the Latinos and the whites coalesced as a group, because they had the same economic interests. And in that case, how they viewed it was, it was us against those "fat cats." That's another thing that will probably happen in America: as the conversation continues as to who's got the most benefits in the society, which is a legitimate concern, then you're going to see some of those groups find some of the same interests. And once that happens, they are going to be on the same page.

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