The Myth of the Poor White Racist - An Injustice!

Brett Pelham 13-17 minutes 10/25/2021

Brett Pelham

White man and Black woman romantically embracing

Image courtesy of Jose Escobar, courtesy of Unsplash

One of the most compelling and widely held stereotypes about White Americans is the myth of the very poor — or very poorly educated — White racist. Many surveys do, in fact, show that very poorly educated White Americans report more racial intolerance than do highly educated White Americans. For example, very poorly educated Whites have historically been more likely than highly educated Whites to say that they would not vote for a Black U.S. Presidential candidate. Likewise, public opinion surveys show that poorly educated as opposed to highly educated Whites have long expressed greater opposition to interracial marriage. In fact, ignoring race, a 2017 national Pew Survey showed that 54% of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or more — but only 26% of Americans with a high school degree or less — said that interracial marriage “is a good thing for our society.”

Poorly educated Whites are also more likely than highly educated Whites to say that they do not feel close to Black Americans. To see just how true this educational difference is for feelings of closeness (a good proxy for racial prejudice, I suggest) — and to see if there are any exceptions to this rule — I examined a snippet of the public opinion data collected routinely in the widely respected U.S. General Social Survey (GSS).

More than 12,000 non-Hispanic White Americans who were surveyed in the GSS between 1980 and 2006 reported how close they felt to American Blacks. The answer options ranged from 1 (“not at all close”) to 9 (“very close”). You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that very poorly educated Whites were more likely than highly educated Whites to distance themselves from Black Americans. In fact, 11.3% of non-Hispanic White Americans who had less than a high school education said that they felt “not close at all” to Black Americans (that’s the negative endpoint of the scale). In contrast, only 2.5% of Whites with a graduate degree reported this extreme level of emotional distance. That finding pretty clearly supports the stereotype of the poorly educated White racist.

However, the same survey data showed that a surprisingly high percentage of very poorly educated Whites (12.3%) also reported feeling the polar opposite of distance from Black Americans. They reported feeling “very close” (the extreme of 9 on the 9-point scale) to Black Americans. In comparison, only 6.4% of Whites with a graduate degree reported feeling this high level of interracial closeness. That’s a ratio of nearly 2:1.

Are there really more very poorly educated than highly educated Whites who identify emotionally with (and presumably accept) Black Americans? I hope you’ll agree that marrying a member of another racial group — and then having a child with that person — is a pretty good sign of accepting that group. With this in mind, I analyzed data from the entire 2016–2019 U.S. birth population. This allowed me to see if non-Hispanic White U.S. mothers who did not have a high school education were more likely than U.S. non-Hispanic White mothers with either (a) a college education or (b) an advanced graduate education to have a Black husband. I should reiterate that I was not consulting data from a sample. I was using the entire population of 15.3 million U.S. couples who had children together between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2019. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) makes these data publicly available at

When something happens in a population, it’s pretty hard to say it’s not real, at least for that population. So, I wanted to see if a population of very poorly educated White mothers (high school dropouts) might be more likely than their much more highly educated White peers to be married to Black husbands. As you can see in the dark grey bars in the figure that follows, this was very clearly the case.

White women’s education level and the likelihood that they were married to Black, Latino, or Native American husbands.

Not surprisingly, overall rates of interracial marriage were low. But as shown in the dark grey bars above, very poorly educated White mothers (again, high school dropouts) were more than twice as likely to have Black husbands as were White mothers with a bachelor’s degree (3.28% versus 1.33%). Further, poorly educated White mothers were almost three times as likely to have Black husbands as were White mothers with an advanced graduate degree (e.g., PhD, MD).

To see if this interracial marriage effect held up for non-Hispanic White mothers married to (a) Latino and (b) Native American Indians husbands, I added these two other stigmatized ethnic minority groups to the analysis. As you can also see in the figure that shows the data for Black / White interracial marriages, the tendency for very poorly educated White mothers to marry outside their racial group also applied to non-Hispanic White / Latino marriages (orange bars) and to non-Hispanic White / Native American Indian marriages (light grey bars).

Expressed as a ratio, very poorly educated White mothers were six times as likely to be married to Native American Indian husbands as were White mothers with advanced graduate degrees. Readers worried that there may have been too few Native American Indian husbands in these data to allow firm conclusions might be surprised to learn, for example, that there 780 marriages of very poorly educated White mothers to Native American Indian husbands in these birth data (compared with 106,858 same-race, White / White marriages).

The interracial marriage findings emphasized here also held up, albeit in somewhat weaker form, for the partners of unmarried rather than married recent U.S. mothers. Further, they held up, though again in somewhat weaker form, when husbands rather than wives were the focus of the analysis. For example, very poorly educated non-Hispanic White fathers were 58% more likely to have Black wives than were non-Hispanic White men with bachelor’s degrees.

Of course, these findings probably exist for multiple reasons. Very poorly educated White people may be more likely than highly educated White people to have ethnic minority neighbors. Simple proximity (physical closeness at home or at work) may play a role in these findings. But proximity, all by itself, cannot produce marriages among people who are not at all attracted to one another. For example, men spend more time in the presence of other men than in the presence of women. But same-sex marriage is obviously much less common than opposite-sex marriage. Likewise, Black and White Americans lived in very close proximity in the deep South for several hundred years, in a world that legally forbade same-sex marriage. If very poorly educated Whites uniformly felt a great degree of prejudice toward Black Americans, they obviously would never marry them. Furthermore, proximity is often a two-way sword. Geographic proximity can easily create conflict rather than communion among groups that dislike one another.

Finally, recall that the General Social Survey showed that poorly educated U.S. Whites were about twice as likely as highly educated Whites to report feeling very close to Black Americans. The GSS does not routinely ask Americans how emotionally close they feel to Latinos or Native American Indians. But the interracial marriage data presented here suggest that a subset of very poorly educated White Americans are likely to have the same positive feelings about Latinos and Native Americans Indians that they have about Black Americans. Whatever the exact reasons for these findings on interracial marriages, they suggest that the stereotype of poorly educated White Americans as highly racist does not tell the whole story. Without a doubt, some very poorly educated White Americans seem to disparage and distrust ethnic minorities more than their highly educated White peers. But plenty of other very poorly educated Whites appear to develop very positive feelings toward stigmatized ethnic minorities.

I hope it is obvious that marriage is a two-way street. Very poorly educated White Americans who married ethnic minorities obviously found ethnic minority partners who found these White people desirable as spouses. Why would any of this be the case?

Edward Staub and Johanna Vollhardt (2008) offer five distinct reasons why people who suffer pain, abuse, or misfortune themselves often become more likely than those who have not experienced such misfortune to identify with others in distress. Staub and Vollhardt argue that suffering increases empathy for others who have suffered. In fact, Vollhardt and Staub (2011) directly tested this idea to see if suffering increased people’s willingness to help people from groups to which they did not belong. It did. Vollhard and Staub found that experiencing any of three different kinds of personal suffering (e.g., being harmed because of one’s group membership, experiencing interpersonal harm) increased the likelihood that people helped others from groups other than their own. This research team further showed that two of the reasons for this increased helping were elevated empathy for a group and a reduced tendency to believe that one’s own group was better than that group.

Such findings raise the question of exactly what aspect of the experiences of poorly educated Whites led many of them to possess pro-Black attitudes. This is difficult to answer using the data I present here because questions about many of the harsh experiences that might predict anti-racist attitudes among Whites (e.g., whether respondents have ever been arrested, whether they have ever been evicted, whether they have been food insecure) have only gone out to very small numbers of GSS survey respondents. Furthermore, these are all low frequency events, even among poorly educated Whites. However, the GSS did ask participants in every wave of the survey to report their income level. Needless to say, having a very low income (being well below the poverty line) is a very good proxy for experiencing problems — such as food insecurity — that are common among U.S. Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

Like the findings for education, the findings for income in the GSS data showed that highly disadvantaged Whites are split in their attitudes — so that many of them possess highly favorable views of Black Americans. The poorest respondents in the GSS reported a monthly household income of less than $1,000. The second poorest group reported a monthly household income of $1,000- $2,499. In stark contrast, the wealthiest group reported earning $25,000 per month ($300,000 per year) or more. Whereas 12.8% of the poorest White Americans said they did not feel close at all to Black Americans, only 4.5% of the richest White Americans said so. (Recall that this was a 1 on a 9-point closeness scale.) The value for the second poorest group of Whites was 7.1%. But when it came to the opposite extreme (9 on a 9-point closeness scale), 20.2% of the poorest Whites said they felt extremely close to Blacks. In contrast, only 7.9% of the second poorest group of Whites and an identical 7.9% of the wealthiest group of Whites said they felt this very high level of closeness.

Additional analyses of the GSS survey data showed that these same patterns apply to people’s attitudes about electing a Black President, their attitudes about government programs to assist the poor, and their attitudes about government programs to assist Black Americans. Finally, these patterns apply to people’s attitudes about how hard Blacks should push for equal treatment. Very poorly educated Whites very often express surprisingly egalitarian, pro-Black points of view — even relative to their PhD and MD wielding White peers.

Unless you study interracial marriage, you may be wondering if any of this really matters. Can the attitudes of a small number of poor and poorly educated White Americans play a role in reducing social inequality? I think the answer is a very clear yes. Consider winning elections in an increasingly gerrymandered world. Political action to reduce systemic racism and social inequality will require a coalition of people from many races and many demographic backgrounds. Identifying a large group of Americans who are much more open to promoting social justice and racial equality than most people assume could be one of the keys to making America a more equitable place in the future.

There are quite a bit more poor White Americans than poor Black Americans in the United States today. This does not mean Black poverty is a myth. Black Americans are about three times as likely as White Americans to live in poverty. But non-Hispanic White Americans outnumber Black Americans slightly more than four to one. So there are roughly 33% more poor White than poor Black people in the United Sates. This is a large — and as far as I know — largely untapped population that could help elect many progressive U.S. political leaders. One obvious barrier to this opportunity is the fact that, regardless of their race — poor Americans vote at much lower rates than wealthy Americans do. But one person’s barrier is another person’s opportunity. Just ask Stacey Abrams, whose tireless efforts to register voters in Georgia helped elect Joe Biden in November of 2020 — and helped give the U.S. Senate its razor-thin Democratic majority in January of 2021.

If the United States is to live up to its moniker as the “land of the free,” it will take a diverse coalition of progressive Americans to defeat regressive policies such as a biased electoral college system, blatant gerrymandering, and state legislatures that are rapildy making it harder than ever for already disenfranchised Americans to vote. Ironically, then, registering many more very poor White voters could become a new tool in the 21st century arsenal against systemic racism. If we wish to make this tool as powerful as possible, we should find ways to promote empathy and understanding among poor and poorly educated Whites who are uncertain of exactly what they think about things like systemic racism.