A zero sum game is one where if one side does better, the other side has to do worse. For a lot of conservatives, that’s the game of life in the USA: if minorities or women succeed, whites or men have to fail.
In some specific situations, that can be true: if the jobs at the local auto plant open to women or black Americans but the number of jobs don’t increase, it’s possible some white men will lose jobs they’d otherwise have received. The game is zero sum. But most life-games don’t work like that. And they shouldn’t: the goal, as blogger Fred Clark puts it, isn’t to get ahead at the expense of others, it’s that we all get ahead.
Trouble is, as noted, some Republicans don’t see it that way. Sure, maybe having black people not shot by cops, having gay people able to marry freely doesn’t take anything material from them. There’s room for all the marriages: straight, gay, same-race and interracial, same faith and inter-faith. But if gay interracial atheist/Muslim couples get to marry just like straight white evangelicals, straight white evangelicals must have lost something right? It’s only the satisfaction of knowing they’re better than The Other, but if they lose it when gays gain, there you are! Zero sum game. As Clark also put it, “The tribal anxiety felt over every advance of feminism is intermixed with the anxiety felt over every advance in civil rights for ethnic minorities. The sense of tribal besiegement that perceives a same-sex wedding as some kind of setback is intermingled with the anxiety over the new neighborhood mosque.”
Which leads us to another Clark post on Slacktivist, discussing Sheila Butler, a 67-year-old Southern Baptist church-goer in Alabama who supports Trump as the one thing between America and a black uprising. All that stuff like Black Lives Matter, football players protesting, Confederate monuments going down, closet Muslim President Obama — she spent the Obama years as terrified as back in “that Rosa parks time … that was a scary time.” Because nothing implies a physical threat to white people like a black woman wanting equality?
Butler goes on to explain that blacks really have no cause to complaint (slave owners treated them very well), but at the same time she’s terrified that things like memorials to lynching victims will make blacks have “violent feelings — feelings of revenge.” So at some level, she’s aware that black people have justifiable reasons for anger, she just can’t admit that to herself. And so she rationalizes that what she’s opposing isn’t a cry for equality, but a cry for revenge, a cry to lash out and punish white America. And so, of course, she’s perfectly justified in refusing them (“If they want justice, that’s scary.” as someone put it in comments). Revenge and retribution makes it a zero sum game; why should she lose so they can get ahead.
I’ve read earlier articles discussing white Americans who are convinced that’s the real issue: one race has to be on top, and if it’s not whites, then whites will be on the bottom. Oppressed. Punished. They’ll have to take what white America’s always dished out. (“This would be a nation where whites weren’t only a minority, but disadvantaged, punished for their collective crimes, because, as he put it, ‘we haven’t been the nicest race.'” as one WaPo article summed it up). I’ve always assumed that was a failure of imagination — the speakers couldn’t believe in a better world — but maybe, as Clark points out, it’s also a failure of courage. If they want revenge, there’s no reason for whites to support change. There’s no reason not to resent blacks, Hispanics, women doing better. There’s no reason to feel resisting them makes you the bad guy. It’s a zero sum game. If they want justice, it isn’t.
It’s the difference between what BLM says (Black Lives Matter …. too) and what they imagine it’s saying (Black Lives Matter … yours don’t).