Level Playing Field: The Psychology Behind Conservative Racism Denial

I recently shared a link to a storification of some tweets by Shaun King arguing that Michael Brown was over 100 feet away from Darren Wilson when Wilson shot him. I got some rather predictable pushback. Some friends argued that Michael Brown had punched Wilson in the face. I wanted to know why they pushed for that.

Jamelle Bouie over at Slate wrote an excellent piece explaining how the process of racism-denial works in America, but I wanted to know why it works, and I have a theory.

I began with the question, “What’s in it, psychologically, for people who deny that racism against ethnic minorities exists in general and was a factor in the killing of Michael Brown in particular?”

My wife suggested that if the narrative that Wilson was justified was untrue, Fox News viewers would find that their trusted news source was inaccurate in at least one instance, and this would make them uncomfortable. I posited that even if Fox News, in some alternate universe, said the shooting was racially motivated, their viewers still wouldn’t believe it. My wife thought this was a reasonable supposition.

I kept probing. One particularly self-aware friend said this:

If it is found out that Officer Wilson was justified in the horrendous killing of Brown, I get the pride in knowing that this officer made one of the toughest decisions a law enforcement officer can make, correctly. Coming from 3 generations of police officers I have seen the stress, as well as, the physical and mental toll it takes on officers. I have also seen the vilification of officers due to the mistakes they make out of human nature. I have seen all police officers stereotyped and disrespected due to the poor decisions of their peers. If this situation is revealed to be a justified use of force by a police officer, I know it won’t matter to the public. They will still say, it was a police cover up. But I will feel better knowing that a police officer did what his training taught him. He acted with integrity and sound decision making.

I think he is in the minority. Most people don’t come from three generations of cops. So the question remains: Why believe racism isn’t real?

I found my answer in the lyrics of a country music song by Brooks and Dunn called “Only in America:”

Sun coming up over New York CityOnly In America
School bus driver in a traffic jam
Starin’ at the faces in her rearview mirror
Looking at the promise of the Promised Land
One kid dreams of fame and fortune
One kid helps pay the rent
One could end up going to prison
One just might be president

Only in America
Dreaming in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance
Only in America [emphasis mine]

According to the traditional conservative narrative I once believed, “We all get a chance; everybody gets to dance (only in America).” According to the narrative, America is a great free country with equality where if you just try your darndest and believe hard enough, anyone can succeed at almost anything. It’s the American dream: you come over on a boat, work your tail off for days and weeks and years on end, and you end up starting Wal*Mart.

I believe this narrative of a level playing field fuels conservativism more than most others. Inequality doesn’t exist, so the poor are poor because they didn’t work hard enough, and the rich are rich because they worked smarter and harder. CEOs deserve massive salaries because they’re creating jobs and wealth, and they don’t deserve for the government to take large chunks away, because gosh darn it, they earned that position and that salary!

These narratives are especially important to whites who have “made it,” but are also important to whites who want to make it. Nobody who worked hard and built McDonald’s, or a business of any kind, or amassed a 401(k) or became successful wants to hear President Obama whispering in their ear that “You didn’t build that” all by yourself; you had help from the government, and certainly nobody wants to hear liberals whispering, “You didn’t build that” because you had help from the color of your skin that you were lucky enough to be born with. Conservatives (everyone, actually) wants to believe that if they make it, it was because of their successes, and if someone else didn’t, it was because of their own failures.

An aside: I suspect Bill Cosby also wants to believe racism doesn’t exist, because he made it, and if he made it, anyone can, because, well, there’s a level playing field.

This notion of a level playing field plays over easily into the racial story: Black men are poor because they’ve made bad choices. They’re more likely to be stopped and frisked because they’re more likely to be criminals, which is really a product of black culture. Trayvon Martin was killed because he looked like a thug, and Michael Brown was killed because he beat up Darren Wilson. And let’s not forget that the playing field really is level because black cops kill white people too, and black on black murder is responsible for more deaths than white on black killing, and let’s not forget that black mob that killed beat a white tree trimmer in Chicago Detroit. The anecdotal evidence, for conservatives, will always tell the narrative of a level playing field. (Thanks to C. Reese for this correction.)

It’s a great narrative, and I crazy wish I could still believe in it. Unfortunately, I have taken sociology. I know billionaires fund politicians so they have sway to keep the super-rich taxes low and create all manner of loopholes. I know owners of for-profit prisons exist and push politicians to be tougher on crime. No CEO can work 600 times harder or smarter than his least-paid employee.

I learned that white people are actually more likely to be doing something illegal when they’re stopped-and-frisked in New York City. I’ve learned that a white man with a criminal record has the same chances at a job as a black man without one, and “applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names.” Also, white-on-white murder is almost as high as the black-on-black murder. Whites don’t need mobs to kill blacks; we have courts.

So, why do white conservatives deny racism? Because it would mean the orienting narrative of the level playing field was a lie.


I ran a quick google search about the Conservative belief that the world is fair and discovered to my delight that this is actually a thing. The idea was introduced by Dr. Melvin Lerner as the Just World Theory. Dr. Lerner started his research in the 1960s, but it’s as old as dirt. Job’s friends and people throughout the Bible (especially the author of Proverbs) believed strongly that people get what they deserve. Jesus, brilliantly, did not.

It plays out in the Michael Brown scenario this way:

1. The world is basically just.
2. Michael Brown was killed by law enforcement.

3. Therefore, Michael Brown deserved to be killed. (It was just that he was killed).
4. I do not deserve to be killed by law enforcement.
5. Therefore, I will not be killed by law enforcement.

The catch: if (3) is false and Brown did not deserve to be killed, it must be the case that either (1) or (2) is false. (2) is obvious, so it MUST be the case that if (3) is false, (1) is also false.

But horrors! If (a) Michael Brown did not deserve to be killed and (b) therefore the world is not basically just, then (4) “I do not deserve to be killed by law enforcement” will no longer prevent me from being killed by law enforcement. Thus, I don’t feel safe.

THEREFORE if I want to believe that (4) will keep me safe from being killed by law enforcement, I MUST believe in a just world, and for the world to be just, Michael Brown MUST have had it coming, therefore….

I will find every argument I can to prove that he deserved it.

Note: I am not black. I’m not here to speak for blacks. I’m here to talk about us white people and our equality-based racism.

About David M. Schell






17 responses to “Level Playing Field: The Psychology Behind Conservative Racism Denial”

  1. Francis Perry Avatar
    Francis Perry

    I think your article is right on, this coming from a Canadian perspective (if that means anything– possibly a little more objectivity). I’ve unfortunately read a few “Christian” blogs lately that are just searching for a hook upon which to hang the notion of Michael Brown being somehow responsible for his fate. Maybe we’re naïve here in Canada, and I know that police have been investigated and exonerated in far too many deadly situations to be reasonable, but generally we go by the notion that the level of violence used by police or even homeowners has to have some equivalency to the danger posed by the situation. Homeowners cannot shoot or kill intruders unless their lives are in danger; police cannot use lethal force when they or the public are not in danger for their lives. A Toronto officer is at the moment charged with Second Degree Murder for shooting (nine times) a youth brandishing a knife on a then-empty streetcar. White parents, in the US or Canada, do not have “The Talk” with their teens (particularly males). There is certainly not a level playing field, particularly in the US.

    (Little typo in your 4th last paragraph— officer’s name twice.)

    1. David M Schell Avatar

      A few weeks ago I was considering moving to Canada in part because of this. Also, fixed the typo – thanks!

  2. Carol Wimmer Avatar

    This is a great blog! American’s live with hypocrisy on so many levels, which you mention, including the denial of gender inequality. When I read the line in our pledge of allegiance that says, “Liberty and Justice for all” I hear a lie – an outright lie. I’m not bashing America, but our pledge of allegiance is not an honest pledge. It was written when people were blind to our internal hypocrisy, inequity, and injustice. Many eyes are opening and we aren’t blind anymore. Saying one thing and living in opposition to what we say is the root of our American crisis, in my opinion. We are living a lie. If we truly want to heal our nation, we need to wipe the slate clean and start over by writing a new “honest” pledge of allegiance that really and truly states who we ARE – not who we wish we could or would be. We are a work in progress! So let’s admit that we are striving to achieve an IDEAL and a QUEST instead of claiming to have arrived at our goal. We are nowhere near the goal! When we claim to be who we are not – that is the lie that feeds and enables psychological denial. And we constantly reinforce that lie with our pledge. A new pledge would go a long way in putting truth on the table for all Americans.These are the words that reflect the truth about this nation! I pledge allegiance to:
    The Flag of the United States of America;
    The Republic for which it stands;
    The Ideal of an indivisible nation; and
    The Quest of liberty and justice for all
    Silly me! To ever imagine that we could go for honesty instead of hypocrisy!

    1. David M Schell Avatar

      When I was a schoolteacher, hearing “With Liberty and Justice for all” in the pledge always made me sad because I really wished it was true.

      1. Carol Wimmer Avatar

        It’s my one political soap box!

  3. Belladonna Took Avatar
    Belladonna Took

    Some good stuff here! Thank you for another thought-provoking read. I would suggest, though, that the problem isn’t so much racism as a particularly intense kind of nationalism. The whole concept of being “UnAmerican” is, as far as I know, unique to this country (I mean, yes, you might here people say “That’s just not British”, but it’s not taken seriously. And you won’t hear the term “UnMexican” or “UnCanadian” as far as I know.) So there’s racism because your ordinary, everyday white Americans (who hold considerable power in terms of peer pressure) just don’t think non-WASPs fit. Way over on the other end of the spectrum, the same kind of mindset is what led to Ruby Ridge, just as an example. It’s a mindset that I, as a very ordinary, middle-of-the-road furriner bump into frequently, because – even as a citizen and taxpayer, I’m just not American enough, and – having been elsewhere and seen something different – I don’t believe this is necessarily “the greatest country in the world.”

    1. RonX Avatar

      The weird thing about this “UnAmerican” concept, other than as you point out that it seems to be uniquely American, is that is goes against the grain of what it is supposedly to be an American: to have liberties such as the right to free speech. So, how can anyone be UnAmerican if you believe everyone in the country has such liberties and is free?

      I also, being from New England (a.k.a. “liberal New England” to some), find it odd when “UnAmerican” is directed towards New Englanders, Bostonians, or Northerners when it comes from Westerners, Alaskans, Texans, etc. Why do I find it odd? Because those parts of the country didn’t even exist when our nation was created. In fact, “liberal New England” was the epicenter for much of the thinking that created “America”. Anyway, just amusing 🙂

  4. TRich78 Avatar

    Confirmation. Bias.

  5. C. Reese Avatar
    C. Reese

    Just issue, the man who was killed in Chicago, wasn’t killed, and it didn’t happen in Chicago, it happened in Detroit.

    1. David M Schell Avatar

      Thanks for that correction! I updated the post.

      1. C. Reese Avatar
        C. Reese

        You’re welcome. Keep up the good writing!

  6. […] ← Level Playing Field: The Psychology Behind Conservative Racism Denial […]

  7. RonX Avatar

    Thanks for the great insights. I’ve been trying to get my head around this issue for a while. I
    wonder if that narrative is inherent to a conservative view or if it is
    very unique to the American context and inspired by our American

  8. Kresimir Waite Avatar
    Kresimir Waite

    1. The world is basically just.
    I neither concur with nor necessarily disagree with the remainder of your logic, but with this part in particular I disagree. You conclude that (1) must be false if (3) is false because (2) clearly is true. But here’s the problem: When I read ‘basically just’ that is exactly what I think, most of the time just, or in the end it will be just (Darren Wilson still has a long life to live, and who knows about the eternities for him–as far as that goes, who knows about the eternities for Michael Brown? Not you or I, that’s for sure. It’s possible that his horrible death is followed by eternities in the presence of a very kind, loving God.), or just with some exceptions. I think Michael Brown’s killing could have been an exception in a basically just world. You might point to many other similar cases and say that there ‘sure are a lot of exceptions.’ (And I apologize for putting words in your mouth, by no means do I know what your response is. I’m attempting to play devil’s advocate to my arguments, so this is what I might say to someone who said to me the things that I’m saying.) I would say, yes, there are a lot of such killings, but how many more times are white police officers in a situation where they might be justified in pulling the trigger but they don’t? Is it possible that that ever happens? If so, does it ever happen? Surely it has happened some times. How many times? Maybe a lot of times. My thought is that possibly on a daily basis many police forces across the country run into situations where it could end up similar to Michael Brown’s story but it doesn’t, the police finds a different way to handle it. Police killings do not occur daily. I would propose that Michael Brown’s death is an outlier, that there are regularly many more situations that end up without anyone hurt that very easily could’ve also ended up horribly, and they don’t because so many police are making the right decisions in these extremely trying, tense scenarios. (And the Justice Department did clear Officer Wilson of wrong doing, but upon checking, your blog was written long before they had a chance to get to the bottom of it all.) So, possibly a basically just world has room for a mistaken killing or two by policemen, very tragic and sad, but not enough to bust my opinion that the world is basically just (and a lot more just in the United States than most other countries). (1) is not necessarily false just because (3) might be false and (2) certainly isn’t.
    One thing I know for sure, when the police speaks to me, no matter how disrespectfully, I do exactly what she/he tells me. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it certainly has for me.

  9. Kresimir Waite Avatar
    Kresimir Waite

    Up front, I am a middle age white male. Those who know me might say that I am trusting of police, that I don’t suspect that they hold biases against me, that I don’t fear that they are going to harm me if I am in their custody. This, apparently is different than others. Recently in the news a young black man said something to the effect that he did not trust white people because they are freaky. This was his reason for resisting arrest, and I’m butchering the story, but I think I have the gist right.
    At any rate, in very general terms, most would say that I am more trusting of police and this young man (and others who have tragically been killed while in police custody) do not trust the police.
    Ironic as it might seem, I would argue the contrary. I don’t trust someone with a gun, so I am very careful what I do around them. I do exactly what they tell me. I am very aware of the possibility that they have the gun and I don’t, so I better not make any mistakes. First, I try not to get in situations where a police feels like she / he needs to draw their gun on me, but if I was ever in that unenviable position, believe me, I would follow every command that they gave me to the T, and I’d say “Yes, Sir / Ma’am!” By their actions, those who resist arrest or try to escape from the police are much more trusting than I am. Apparently, they trust that the police will not feel threatened by their actions and thereby have reason to shoot. I don’t understand it, but I certainly only have the experiences of my life to judge by.
    It may not work for everyone to not trust the police in this way, but it does for me. None have ever fired on me yet.

    1. David M Schell Avatar

      I would recommend a reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” Unlike the kid on TV, Coates knows his stuff.

  10. rezguy Avatar

    I am Native American. One pattern of white denial that I have observed is the following: (1) minority describes racist incident involving a white person(s) at location x and time y to a group of friends or coworkers. Next, in (2) a white person(s) among those hearing of the incident perceive it is an indictment of all whites. This leads to an emotional cascade in (3) the white person now believes the description of the incident by the minority in (1) is now an indictment of him or her. Then in (4) the white person refutes the incident because it is not just an indictment of the original white person in (1) at location x and time y. It is now an indictment of all whites hearing the story. A good example is a discussion I had with a Native American friend. We were alluding to white racism we had witnessed and experienced in a white border town near a reservation in rural AZ. My friend was half-white, and his wife was a liberal white woman. His white wife somehow thought we were talking about all white people which included her. So she got really upset and said something like “Don’t talk about my people.” Here we were thinking of very specific individuals at a location x and time y – not the entire white population. That response is very common. I refer to it as an emotional cascade by the white person. I learned that I shouldn’t really casually mention white racism I had experienced to whites because they may just think I am accusing them when I am not. I have met many whites who are not racist. But it seems like they want to deny there are other whites out there who are racist because such an admission somehow becomes an indictment of them. It’s a bizarre emotional cascade. To me, it just doesn’t make sense at all.

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