Why Are White Liberals So Obsessed With Race?

White liberals with college degrees care more about race and have a more dim view of race relations than African Americans. What’s going on here?

In his influential 2019 piece in Vox, Matthew Yglesias wrote: “In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” (My emphasis added.)

They’ve also developed a self-loathing. In another lengthy piece on this same subject, this one in Tablet, Zach Goldberg reports that, “White liberals recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias—meaning that among all the different groups surveyed white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.”

To give a very concrete example of what Yglesias and Goldberg are talking about, take a look at the recent Democratic primary for New York mayor.  

The race came down to the three top candidates. Eric Adams is a Black former cop who talked tough on crime. Kathryn Garcia is white, the city’s sanitation commissioner and she was the choice of the New York Times editorial board. Maya Wiley is Black, chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (similar to Madison’s Police Oversight Board) and she was the wokest, the furthest to the left of any candidate.

Adams won the primary and, in heavily blue New York, he’ll be elected mayor in November.

“Adams’s biggest margins were in Black majority non-college tracts, where he won with 59 percent to Wiley’s 24 percent and Garcia’s 5 percent. In Black majority college-educated tracts, Adams won a plurality, 37 percent, to Wiley’s 32 percent and Garcia’s 13 percent,” reported New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall.

In other words, Black voters (both college-educated and not) chose the law and order Black candidate over the woke Black candidate. But among the white college-educated both Garcia and Wiley outpolled Adams.

The bottom line here is that Black voters were more practical. They were worried more about crime than “white privilege,” probably because they live in neighborhoods where crime happens. Affluent white liberals in safe neighborhoods have the luxury of focussing on boutique social theories.

So, the lurch to the left by college-educated, mostly affluent white liberals is well-documented, but why is it happening?

I have my own theory and it goes like this. The real “privilege” in American society is less about race than it is about education. The one-third of Americans who have a four-year college degree earn about twice as much as the two-thirds who don’t, and the gap is even wider for professional and advanced degrees.

So, by obsessing about race, white liberals can ignore the real source of their own advantages. some of which, like skin color, are unearned. After all, let’s face it, for most jobs a college degree is just checking a box. It conveys little or nothing in terms of ability to do the job. It’s just getting your ticket stamped.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Peter Coy reports on Byron Auguste who co-founded a nonprofit organization, Opportunity@Work, whose purpose is to give a leg up to people he calls STARs, short for “skilled through alternative routes.”

Auguste talks about his own father, who didn’t have a college degree, but learned computer programming and wound up highly successful. But that can’t happen today because corporate gate keepers won’t even look at a resume for a management position that doesn’t list at least a Bachelor’s Degree.

Auguste, who has a doctorate in economics from Oxford, thinks that employers are short-changing themselves in this way, and it has nothing to do with actual qualifications and everything to do with snobbishness about educational attainment.

“It’s a pretty dysfunctional market in a lot of ways,” he says. “You’re not just giving extra weight to a bachelor’s. You’re insisting on it. And there’s no way to even learn what you’re missing. That’s why you can keep making this mistake over and over. The level of class segregation in this country right now is off the charts, more than it ever was,” he says. “It’s really nuts.”

So, if you’re a white liberal who knows intuitively that you’re earning way more than somebody else who hasn’t had your opportunity to go to college, and you know that your “qualifications” are essentially a fraud, why wouldn’t you feel a sense of self-loathing? But not self-loathing to the point of honestly identifying the very source of your privilege.

In this way race becomes any easy out. Blue collar white folks are even more guilty than you are because, unlike you, they aren’t self-aware enough to understand their own complicity. There’s even a whiff of Catholic sacraments about it. Yes, you’ve sinned but you’ve gone to confession. Never mind that you’ve confessed a venial sin and left the mortal one off the table.

Look, “guilty white liberals” have always been a thing. But now, with their vastly increased power and influence over institutions, including the media and the Democratic Party, they’re steering the public conversation in a way that is backfiring on all those institutions. The language and policies of woke are just killing the Democrats.

If college-educated white liberals really want to save democracy the very first thing they can do is just shut the heck up and let the conversation get steered by white and Black blue collar voters.

Welcome to the 244th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

9 thoughts on “Why Are White Liberals So Obsessed With Race?

  1. Dave, in a lot of your essays you don’t seem to get critical race theory. It posits that the ONLY thing that matters (obsessed is your word) is the power differential, where whites have dominated everyone else in order to remain on top. So if blacks lack education, it is because the white power structure wanted it that way. Every unequal outcome can ONLY be because of that power differential, regardless of whether you are talking about wealth, income, crime, education, poverty, etc. The liberals you mention are just exhibiting CRT.


  2. There are people who hate, live in hate and fear, and believe their life is to “fix” the rest of the world while becoming rich themselves. We allow them to do this by not thinking for ourselves with responsibility.


  3. I had not thought of the idea of people focusing on racial privilege to avoid focusing on other privilege until this I read this.

    This may be part of the motivation. Another part is a backlash against people who want to ignore the problem. Racism ended, they say, when the last laws treating people differently according to race went away, and now we can move forward as if none of that ever happened.

    It seems like we have to admit the problem and work the problem without wallowing in it and risking unintentionally perpetuating the problem.


  4. Still the Rational Liberal. Like your thoughts on college degrees. They have been used as crucibles by employers for half a decade or more. It’s the fastest way to whittle down a stack of resumes. But I never thought of it as snobbishness, but as a way of hiring people who are more like you. Since hirers have college degrees, they feel more comfortable with others who have that socialization, who have the diurnal discipline to jump the hoops and ring the bells that gain the degree. Thanks for your thoughts. Always watching for the next Isthmus column.


  5. “But that can’t happen today because corporate gatekeepers won’t even look at a resume for a management position that doesn’t list at least a Bachelor’s Degree.”

    A few years ago my son applied for a job as a dishwasher at Epic. The application required his ACT scores. For washing dishes. Q.E.D.


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