The Ten Levels of White Racism in America: A Useful Spectrum

Understanding the types of racism and racists is far more useful than simply labeling people as racist or not. Here is my go at a useful spectrum.

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981 June 13, 2020

pro "Confederate" protest
Protesters unhappy in June, 2020, with the removal of a statue of rebel “Confederate” “President” Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky State Capitol (Victor Puente/Twitter/@thevictorpuente)

SILVER SPRING—“I am going to take a break from my normal approach to writing and, instead, be more free-form here.  I have documented the true horrors of racism in the U.S. (and beyond) for years, in particular the persistent, living legacy of slavery and its detestable offspring embedded throughout our system confronting African-Americans in America today, the evidence for the existence of which is not only supremely compelling but overwhelmingly incontrovertible.  Each of my past pieces just linked to are base camps in which I provide many links by far more knowledgeable and accomplished people than myself for you to explore, should you want to learn more or, absurdly, if you doubt the premise itself (and then I beseech you even more to explore those sources).

Like any horror, whether terrorism, murder, sexual assault, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, genocide, etc., not all racism and not all racists are equal.  There is a spectrum, then, and the more we familiarize ourselves with it, the more we can deal with these elements in a divide-and-conquer strategy for success, whether smashing their grip on political and legal power wherever they hold any of it or peeling off some of the less nefarious on the lower-end of the spectrum into the arms of the enlightened (or “woke,” if you must).”

I categorized ten distinct stages as the best representation of the range of white racism in America, but there is certainly room for sub-categories that can exist in between and I view this as a 1.0, with future revisions a possibility.  Elements from lower tiers can be in upper tiers (e.g., I’m sure 6 applies to most in 1-5).  Also, to be clear for those who would derail this based on semantics, we are using the commonly-understood definition in which the term racism also includes discriminating against ethnicities, not just “races” (yes, sadly, I’ve heard racists tell me that that bigotry against Latinos, Arabs, Indians, Jews, etc. does not count as being “racist” because those groups aren’t races…).

So, without further ado, here are the ten main types of white racists in America, starting with the most racist:

1.) You wear a hood/swastika, burn crosses, march with tiki torches, openly say screw X group of people based on skin color/race/ethnicity, or wish you could do these things even if you’re not open about it.  Preserving the racial purity and racial hierarchy of the United States by excluding or kicking out non-whites and fighting against assertive minority-rights movements is of the utmost importance to you.  Under such thinking, whites can be viewed as “superior,” or “supremacist,” relative to most or all other races/non-white ethnicities.  You subscribe to a mini-renaissance of junk pseudoscience about how Africans and others are actually genetically inferior in terms of intelligence, and your subscription to these ideas without spending the necessary energy finding the plenty of evidence showing how this is quite easily debunked is as much proof of your racism as the other stuff.

2.) You do not openly express hate for X groups or profess fidelity to a white “superiority” over X groups, but as a white person, you express “white pride” and feel whites need to unite to stand up for each other: this makes you a “white nationalist.”  A lot of “all lives matter” people fall into this category, seeing assertion of black and other identities as a threat to them personally and to “their” fellow whites.  Politics for you is often about preserving the political power of “your” group and preserving “American culture,” by which you mean “white culture.”  You consciously believe in blocking access to power akin to your group’s own for these other groups and freely admit, at least to yourself, that you want to see whites’ privileged position in the American societal hierarchy preserved.  While not subscribing to ideas of white genetic, innate superiority, you likely subscribe to ideas of white cultural superiority and want to fight to preserve “white culture.”

(HISTORY LESSON: There’s no “black” ethnic group in Africa.  American slavers took people mostly from West Africa—a region consisting of numerous ethnic groups with distinct languages, histories, cultures, and traditions—and bred them like horses and livestock for centuries, forming them into one group that became African-American, mixing all kinds of African ethnicities into a new one that could not be distinguished by separate African ethnicities or points of origin easily and became a new, man-made ethnicity, kind of a form of a “genteel” Southern antebellum forced genetic engineering…  So African-American as a label, though artificially created by the slave trade, is still like Italian-American, Irish-American, Salvadoran-American, or Chinese-American as opposed to being analogous to white Americans.  “White-American” as an ethnicity is not actually thing, it’s a broader category; comparing it to African-American is comparing apples and oranges, like comparing Canada to Asia.  If you’re not identifying yourself in this sense mainly as your “ancestors’ countries of origins-American” but are self-selecting white as your identity, that’s not an ethnic group and it’s absurd, and if you feel the need to do that in response to African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, and others asserting their identities, you’re revealing a racist mentality.  It’s like the “Confederate” rebel monuments that were put up not in the 1860s and 1870s but mainly from 1890-1940 to assert Jim Crow inequality, in response to anti-lynching efforts, and as a slap in the face of the budding Civil Rights movement.  White pride is, thusly, basically a racist way to push back against people of color asserting their rights/identities but without explicitly aligning with the terrorist Ku Klux Klan or other explicitly Nazi or fascist hate groups.)

3.) You keep your moderately racist misgivings to yourself and do not feel yourself a “white pride” person, perhaps even feel guilty about some of your views/status, but more quietly support, with a wink and a nod, structures and politicians that will keep white privilege alive.  You know you are doing this and it’s a conscious choice because you feel it’s “your country” or whatever, that “your people” built this country, not “those people.”  Rather than consciously feeling a general unified “white culture” chauvinism, you see certain black and brown cultures as inferior and ascribe African-Americans to such an inferior category.

4.) You deny racism against African-Americans and others is a thing and claim that there are no institutional barriers or systemic racism for blacks or other non-whites in America, that these issues are “made up” by Democrats to artificially “divide” people, (as if the realities of racism don’t do this already).  You may even believe the insanity that racism against whites is as bad as or worse than racism against blacks.  All this takes an insane amount of willful ignorance, ignoring mountains of data and history and a refusal to understand how history affects the present to the relative benefit of white Americans compared with African-Americans.

5.) You actually acknowledge racism is a real thing, but subscribe to the cultural inferiority/superiority chauvinism against blacks and others described earlier.  You justify racism as not only natural, but acceptable because you think those other groups face challenges primarily because they make poor decisions as a group and that they are often deservedly targeted by police as a group (though maybe sometimes unfairly as individuals) as a result, and are discriminated against, mainly because of this.  Thus, in your view, housing discrimination is just a way for better, harder-working Americans to keep their neighborhoods safe and nice and discrimination in education and employment exists because “certain” groups of people just don’t have the same motivation and work ethic as white in general do (these people will often also point to the high standardized test scores of some Asian groups to “prove” this assertion).  Police and criminal justice issues disproportionately affect blacks, you feel, because “they commit most of the crime.”  You make these arguments while willfully ignoring other factors for no good reason and mistaking symptoms for the disease.  When there is an individual case of a questionable or even clearly wrong police killing, you (nearly) always defend the police and blame the victim.

(Not at all coincidentally, many of these people are also quite within the realm of being racist against Jews [here being considered as the ethnic-group, bound by blood and genes, as opposed to the religion which could include recent converts and older convert communities].  Much in the same way these whites view blacks as inherently inferior based on junk pseudo-science or culturally inferior based on junk cultural understandings, the same whites often subscribe to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes about Jews and their nefarious “plots” to do whatever, including, most recently, that Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros is behind the black lives matter protests and the rioting and vandalism they incorrectly see as one and the same.  And let’s remember the that those tiki-torch-bearing little Nazi marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 were chanting “Jews will not replace us.”  The overlap with anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment is real, with anti-Semitism in the modern sense often definitely a form of racism.)

6.) You don’t feel the need to assert whiteness, deny racism exists, or subscribe to ideas of cultural inferiority/superiority, but you did and will proudly vote Trump and claim little or nothing Trump does is racist or has anything to do with racism (most of the above categories would claim this, too, but alongside one or more of the other ideas you do not embrace).  You feel that most or all accusations of Trump’s racism are just liberal or media smears.  This takes a stunning amount of willful ignorance or deliberate not caring enough about the concerns of so many Americans that would you even try to learn about the terrible racism of Trump and Trumpism or the serious threat that he and it present to people different from yourself and the damage this does at home and even abroad.

7.) You admit that there is systemic racism but go out of your way to minimize or at least lessen its effects (again, a lot of willful ignorance is required) and feel that African-Americans in particular need to just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” like other immigrant groups.  You deny the important legacy of slavery or minimize or lessen it since “that was a long time” ago. 

You fail to ask why African-Americans (that is, slave-descent) struggle far more than actual voluntary immigrants from Africa or black immigrants from other regions, again conspicuously avoiding the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.

8.) You say you support equal rights and fighting racism and, though you normally vote Republican, did not because Trump’s racism and other things about him bothered you so much, but have still voted Republican most of the time and may still after Trump, willfully ignorant and blinding yourself to the way the Republican Party has, for decades, been the party of racists and racism (though not in recent decades as explicitly as in the Trump era), all this in spite of clear, easily available evidence to the contrary.  You may have milder versions of the views held by the previous type (7), and feel that Trump is mainly the problem and that the Republican Party is mainly “fine” on racial issues without Trump.  It takes the blatant racism of Trump to partly open your eyes, but they are not nearly open enough.  A lesser version of this person (say, an 8.5) might be a swing “independent” voter who goes back and forth and votes Democratic sometimes but does not see or mostly misses the damage the Republicans have done on race in a very similar way to an 8.0).

9.) You consider yourself a solid liberal and normally vote for Democrats as part of what you feel is an obligation to fight racism, yet you regularly exhibit racist behavior or views (beyond “microaggressions”) without realizing it, though in mostly mild and subtle ways, not in more extreme ways except perhaps very rarely.  You likely have a few close friends of color and simply are not aware of how your views, comments, or behavior—often subconscious, a result or your upbringing, or simply a result of not having been exposed to the views of people of color in an intense way—are legitimately offensive and should be adjusted.  Though you occasionally do catch yourself or realize some of what you say, do, and feel is not appropriate (maybe realizing it’s racism or maybe not), you generally miss the patterns that at least make you fairly consistently a milder racist. No, voting for Obama once or even twice does no mean you are immune to being somewhat racist.

10.) You’re at least partly down with the causes of fighting racism and inequality and all but engage in some legitimately offensive “microaggressive” acts or statements unintentionally (mostly out of unfamiliarity) or have certain views or gut reactions to people who different.  You subscribe to misinformation about these groups without really bothering to look into them; you find yourself prejudging or avoiding certain people from certain racial/ethnic background without giving them a good individual shake (but let’s be honest, most people of most races and ethnicities everywhere around the world and certainly most Americans fall under this very human category).


We should separate here people who fall on this spectrum and those who do not but may occasionally engage in acts that can be defined as racist, if out of ignorance, fear, convenience, or to play for some advantage.  They do not harbor racist views in general but once in a while consciously seek to practice or benefit from what has often been termed “white privilege” (though, considering the large numbers of poor whites in this country and how the best thing would be for poor whites and poor blacks to unite, during a conversation with a friend I came to the conclusion that the term “white advantage” might be a better term and might rub the literally dirt-poor whites of Appalachia a bit less offensively), undoubtedly a very real and pervasive concept regardless of how it is labeled.  Just as overall good people can do bad things and overall bad people can still do good things (Hitler really loved his dog, or whatever), so I believe that non-racists can commit some racist acts, though once they become something less than rare, we’re veering into a pattern and thus onto the above-discussed spectrum.  Discussing how generally non-racist people can still commit racist acts could be a whole conversation and exploration on its own, which we will not delve into here.

A whole further discussion still could be had on the silence and non-activism of non-racist whites being a huge part of the problem, and Dr. King has the ultimate word on that, from thoughts composed in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell in 1963:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

All members of the majority have a duty to stick up for the abused minority, and I have yet to see a better expression of this sentiment than that given in a speech given by Abraham Lincoln in 1858:

Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of “don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down,” for sustaining the Dred Scott decision [A voice—“Hit him again”], for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!

For now, I will leave Lincoln with the last word on that.  I will keep my focus in this piece to the above spectrum I devised that involves how people think, feel, and believe in ways that subscribe in the mind and heart to racism, including a willful, irrational denial or exclusion of information that would force them to reckon with their beliefs and acknowledge other factors as the primary drivers of racial inequality instead of the ones they incorrectly choose to inflate.  Understanding the different ways and different degrees people think in terms of and subscribe to racism in their minds and hearts, their consciousnesses and worldviews, is crucial, and I feel confident in the above spectrum as a way to be able to do this and its rough accuracy.

One would hope that, over time, more and more of the people in the lowest rungs of this racism spectrum can be pulled out of it and into the light (I prefer “enlightened” as a term, harkening back to the Enlightenment—the grand intellectual revolutionary movement that helped birth our nation—over the Millennialspeak “woke”), and, indeed, such gradual realignment and enlightenment over time has been the story of slow—sometimes excruciatingly slow—progress for our nation on race from even our colonial era.  And this story has, though sometimes suffering setbacks, reverses, and a few dark ages, been one overall a gradually improving arc rising towards justice and equality.

Yet unquestioningly, our present Trumpian era is undoubtedly one of those moments when the upward arc is being pulled down, and there is never a guarantee that that curve (not to be confused with the coronavirus curve) will eventually resume an upward trajectory.  The most immediate question for now is “How much lower will the arc curve down and when will we (or even will we) see the arc move back up?”

There are reasons to be cautiously hopeful that the current “black lives matter” moment after the killing of George Floyd by police—a moment that seems to have exploded into a fierce global movement—may really be something special, may really bring about change.  We are already seeing a spate of much needed local-level reforms enacted that is quite encouraging, but only time will tell if the systemic change we need in this country—not just in some localities and states, nor only in structures, laws, and institutions, but in our hearts and minds—is really upon us or, if, as in so many other similar situations before, public outrage and demands for change will be thwarted by the system itself, with public attention and efforts eventually waning and moving onto some other new or old distraction.

In the end, far fuller justice and a forceful, rapid upward shift in the arc will only materialize with serious movement of people down and off the spectrum I delineated above.  We should think of racism, then, not as a black-and-white thing or a box checked as a “yes” or a “no,” but as my wide spectrum that invites differing approaches and solutions for individuals depending on where they are on it in order to make those deeply necessary spectrum-shifts far more likely, far more soon, and far more powerful.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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