The idea of affirmative action looms large in the white imagination and has been a passion among conservative activists. Some white people even believe that Black people get to go to college for free – when the reality is, Black students on average wind up paying more for college through interest-bearing student loans over their lifetimes because they don’t have the passed-down wealth that even poorer white students often have. And in selective college admissions, any given white person is far more likely to be competing with another white person than with one of the under-represented people of color in the applicant pool.
Is it welfare? The characters of the white taxpayer and the free-loading person of color are recurring tropes for people like Norton and Sommer’s survey respondents. But the majority of people receiving government assistance, like the majority of people in poverty, are white; and people of color pay taxes, too. The zero-sum idea that white people are now suffering due to gains among people of color has taken on the features of myth: it lies, but it says so much.
The narrative that white people should see the well-being of people of color as a threat to their own is one of the most powerful subterranean stories in America. Until we destroy the idea, opponents of progress can always unearth it and use it to black any collective action that benefits us all. Today, the racial zero-sum story is resurgent because there is a political movement invested in ginning up white resentment toward lateral scapegoats (similarly or worse-situated people of color) to escape accountability for a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few.
From ”The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone And How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee