The Washington Post

Question that did in ‘Dilbert’ cartoonist has a heavy past


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 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 okay 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 coopted 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 okay 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 okay 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 towards 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, in February, several dozen people staged a counterdem­onstration 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 okay 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 White 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 okay 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.

 ?? Marcio Jose Sanchez/associated PRESS ?? Scott Adams works on his “Dilbert” comic strip in his studio in Dublin, Calif., in 2006. His syndicatio­n company severed ties with Adams after he recently made racist comments on his Youtube show.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/associated PRESS Scott Adams works on his “Dilbert” comic strip in his studio in Dublin, Calif., in 2006. His syndicatio­n company severed ties with Adams after he recently made racist comments on his Youtube show.

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