By Marisa Iati and Scott Clement / The Washington Post
The polling group presented survey takers with an oddly phrased question: Did they agree or disagree with the statement, “It’s OK to be white”?
When a slim majority of Black respondents said yes, comic strip creator Scott Adams cited the results to argue that Black Americans are “a hate group,” urging white people to “get the hell away from” Black people. His racist rant prompted hundreds of newspapers and the comic’s distributor to drop his “Dilbert” comic in disapproval, rendering the decades-old cartoon homeless.
The survey question was asked by the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports, whose head pollster described it as a “simple” and “uncontroversial” query. But, in fact, the phrase in question has a freighted history that implies more than its face-value meaning.
The phrase “it’s OK to be white” was popularized in 2017 as a trolling campaign meant to provoke liberals into condemning the statement and thus, the theory went, proving their own unreasonableness. White supremacists picked up on the trend, adding neo-Nazi language, websites or images to fliers with the phrase.
Survey takers familiar with that background may have wanted to avoid expressing approval of wording co-opted in that way, experts said.
Rasmussen, citing respondents reached through automated landline calls and a panel of volunteer participants, reported that 53 percent of the 117 Black participants agreed with the statement but 26 percent of Black participants disagreed and 21 percent said they weren’t sure.
“Anyone who did know the history of it or who had a suspicion about the history of it might react to that Rasmussen question with some skepticism,” said Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies racial attitudes and public emotions. “And that wouldn’t be a sign that they didn’t like white people.”
In a video that Rasmussen posted on Twitter alongside the survey results, head pollster Mark Mitchell presented the question as a good-faith effort to capture public opinion; something he claimed Rasmussen is unique in doing. (“The reality of American public opinion does not match what you’ve being told in the news, at schools or colleges, by corporations and by your public officials.”) Mitchell suggested that mainstream journalists would hesitate to report on the result of the question because it “conclusively undermines the current racial orthodoxy.”
“All we did was ask very simple questions that should be uncontroversial, and we are reporting on what Americans told us, nothing more,” Mitchell said in the video. While Adams cited the number of skeptical Black respondents to raise race-based alarm, Mitchell cited the majority of respondents of all races who approve of the phrase to take aim at liberal-leaning groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center for designating it a problematic phrase.
In recent years, Rasmussen has shifted from serving primarily as a right-leaning polling firm to more actively amplifying conservative causes, with a website featuring commentary from conservative and libertarian pundits. In the video about the recent survey question, Mitchell also hyped polling results that he said showed “nearly half the country is concerned that vaccines are causing a significant number of unexplained deaths.” (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there is no evidence that coronavirus vaccines are causing deaths.) On Twitter, the firm also elevated misinformation about alleged fraud in the 2020 presidential election and highlighted conspiracy theories suggesting that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “set-up.”
Rasmussen did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the history of the phrase “it’s OK to be white.”
White supremacists have used the phrase since at least the early 2000s, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Six years ago, the term gained popularity when people on the discussion forum 4chan decided to employ the phrase as a stunt.
The trolls posted sheets of paper with just the words “it’s OK to be white” on building doors and other public locations in the hope that some people would become upset and express frustration. Many people saw through the prank, Pitcavage said, and recognized its malicious intent.
The next year, the trolling movement picked up again. A post on 4chan said the goal was to “bait the left into revealing their hatred and racism toward white people for the voting public to see,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. The posters appeared on the campuses of at least 14 universities, including on a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Cabrillo College in Northern California. At Duke University, pumpkins carved with swastikas were found near some of the fliers.
The phrase continued to pop up in the years that followed. A student was expelled from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2019 after posting fliers with those words. In 2020, a man plastered a North Carolina synagogue with posters of the term twice in three days. In Portland, Maine, this month, several dozen people staged a counter-demonstration against a former city council candidate holding a banner with the phrase.
For those who know about that baggage, Pitcavage said, the words “it’s OK to be white” are not nearly as innocuous as they may seem. Even for people who are unfamiliar with it, he said, the weird phrasing may suggest that it is meant to troll or trigger them.
“You can see that phrase and easily recognize that someone’s trying to get a rise out of you by using it,” Pitcavage said. “Disapproving of that statement and disapproving of whiteness or wWhite people are two very different things.”
Polls testing agreement with political slogans also can confuse respondents who are unfamiliar with them. Across demographics, many respondents to the Rasmussen survey expressed uncertainty when asked whether “it’s OK to be white.” In addition to the 21 percent of Black people who said they were “not sure,” 20 percent of Democrats, 19 percent of women, and 25 percent of people who identified as a race other than Black or White said the same.
Other surveys suggest that white and Black Americans have largely positive views of each other. In the 2020 American National Election Studies survey, which asked a random sample of Americans to rate a variety of groups on a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0 to 100, most Black and white Americans expressed positive views of the other group.
Among Black Americans, 62 percent rated “whites” warmly (51 degrees or higher), 18 percent coldly (below 50 degrees) and another 21 percent right at 50 degrees. Among white Americans, 66 percent rated “blacks” warmly, 6 percent coldly and 28 percent right at 50 degrees. Among Hispanic adults, 58 percent rated white people warmly and 71 percent said the same for Black people.
Marisa Iati is a reporter on the general assignment desk at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the Star-Ledger and NJ.com in New Jersey, where she covered municipal mayhem, community issues, education and crime.
Scott Clement is the polling director for The Washington Post, conducting national and local polls about politics, elections and social issues. He began his career with the ABC News Polling Unit and came to The Post in 2011 after conducting surveys with the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.
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