White Fright and the Politics of Privilege

A migrant from Syria holds one of his children in a holding area after arriving at a rail station in Munich, Germany, and being detained by police Aug. 29, 2015. Several governors in the U.S. have come out against allowing refugees fleeing the war in Syria to come to America.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A migrant from Syria holds one of his children in a holding area after arriving at a rail station in Munich, Germany, and being detained by police Aug. 29, 2015. Several governors in the U.S. have come out against allowing refugees fleeing the war in Syria to come to America.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Muslims are coming.

Or the refugees.

Or the terrorists.

With Donald Trump’s recent statement about registering Muslims, and the cadre of governors vowing to oppose any Syrian refugees immigrating to their states, we are once again drowning in the hysteria surrounding another brown bogeyman. As soon as we manage to get past the cave-dwelling terrorist leader or the hordes of Mexican gangbangers beheading people in the desert, some cunning businessman or savvy politician inevitably invents another monster dark and scary enough to invoke a national moment of anxiety and tap into the never-ending, nonpartisan emotion known as “white fright.”


Soon after France experienced the tragedy of the recent terrorist incidents, the conversation in America hopscotched from the Islamic State group to Homeland Security to the phrase “radical Muslims” to the irrational fear of the oncoming hordes of undercover jihadis disguising themselves as Syrian refugees.

Never mind the fact that no one has implicated a refugee in France, or any other country, in an act of terrorism.

Never mind the fact that the one set of people least likely to set off a bomb are those who have left everything and run halfway around the world to get away from falling bombs.

Never mind that the Refugee Act of 1980 spells out exactly how the country handles refugees.

A few years ago, while working on a story about the efforts of certain communities to reinstitute segregation, I attended a school board meeting in Hoover, Ala. In an attempt to circumvent restrictions placed on the district by the Department of Justice, the affluent and mostly white area’s school board attempted to dam its rising population of lower-income, minority “apartment dwellers” by ending the district’s busing program.

During the meeting, a black teenager made a heartfelt, well-researched speech with numbers that showed that the district test scores and attendance had actually improved as it had become more diverse. She implored the board to let kids like her have access to a great education. The data-driven rationale of her speech was quickly overshadowed by tales of thug gang members roaming the hallways, and minorities driving the test scores down, preventing the “good kids” from getting into good colleges.


Therein lies the problem.

One of the biggest problems with people of privilege is that they believe that their personal feelings should trump any and every other thing—including laws and facts. When their safety, property or even their simple comfort is in jeopardy, their response is always to close ranks and put their wagon train in a circle. You see, white fright is bigger than the Constitution, data or even the truth because whenever there is a crisis, the privileged automatically go into the default mode of “protect mine,” and in the psyche of privilege, everything—the country, the schools and the neighborhoods—is all theirs.


The perception that making a school district whiter will make it better is more important than the actual data that shows the opposite. The fear of terrorists disguised as refugees transcends the fact that over 200 American citizens have tried to go fight for the Islamic State—they don’t have to pose as Syrian refugees to get to America because they are already in America.

America’s refugee immigration policy and who it allows in is determined by laws carefully considered, voted on by legislators and ratified by the president. Laws are not suggestions that we can willy-nilly chuck into the garbage when we get frightened and aren’t feeling as benevolent as we once did. That is the purpose of laws. The only reason to codify something is so that it won’t be subject to the whims of individual emotions.


The white fright of Muslim cabals looking to harm the U.S. apparently outranks the constitutional right to freedom of religion. The dread of mythical Mexican rapists (even though net immigration is down) might even help a previously mentioned, wall-promising presidential candidate win his party’s nomination. When Donald Trump tweets made-up, racist statistics about how dangerous black people are or tells a crowd in Birmingham, Ala., how he saw Muslims cheering the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11—he knows exactly what he’s doing: brewing a new batch of white fright.

I’m not saying that people of color are never frightened. I’m saying that they aren’t entitled enough to hold the expectation that the rights of others should be suspended because of their fears. Everyone is scared sometimes, but the worrisome part is the belief that the rest of the world, or the country, or members of a religion need to sacrifice certain freedoms in order to mollify the angst of others.


The white fright spreading because of the incidents in France is important, but when one puts it in perspective using pure numbers, it all becomes clear:

Number of people killed in mass shootings by white supremacists in 2015: 18

Number of unarmed people of color killed by police in 2015: 155

Neither of these facts has inspired any substantive changes or last-minute legislation. Here are two more important facts that should color this entire conversation:

Number of Americans killed by the Islamic State: 5

Number of Americans killed by the Islamic State on U.S. soil: 0

Be strong, white people.

Hold your head.