Race, Resentment, and Health-Care Reform

A recent report from the Greenlining Institute -- which focuses on issues of racial and economic justice -- uses the "racial resentment" scale to measure the racial dimensions of opposition to health-care reform. For those unfamiliar with the concept, here's a quick description:

The “racial resentment” framework is a political belief system that fuses whites’ belief in traditional conservative values such as the protestant work ethic (e.g., hard work equals success) with whites’ negative feelings towards blacks as a group (Sears & Henry, 2003; Kinder & Sanders, 1996). Whites who share this perspective tend to believe that the reason blacks fail to get ahead in society is their failure to work hard enough, and not because of racial discrimination.

Given the ethnocentric foundations of American public opinion, it comes as no surprise to learn that high racial resentment is associated with opposition to the health-care law:

We utilized data from the summer 2010 wave of the 2008-2010 ANES panel survey to see if racial resentment was related to white opposition to the recently passed health care reform law, and the evidence suggests that it was. Whites who were racially resentful were less likely to support the health care reform law, even after controlling for age, gender, education level, income level, employment status, party identification, political ideology, the respondent’s attitude towards President Obama and whether or not the individual had health insurance.

To borrow from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam's work on the subject (by way of Matthew Yglesias), the data shows a very clear relationship between ethnocentric views and opposition to means-tested welfare (which describes health-care reform, in its means-tested subsidies for lower-income people). Indeed:

[E]thnocentric whites are more likely to push for cuts in food stamps, to favor reductions in spending on welfare, to oppose increasing benefits to women on welfare if they have additional children, and to favor strict time limits on public assistance. Partisanship, egalitarianism, and limited government also contribute to opinion on welfare, and in the expected way. But with controls on partisanship and principles (and on benefits and all the rest), the effects of ethnocentrism are statistically significant and sizable in every case.

Since this will probably attract skeptics, it's worth noting that these results are well-reflected in political science research, as well as public opinion data. For example, last year saw two polls that revealed high levels of racial resentment among Tea Partiers and others opposed to the health-care law. According to The New York Times, 52 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers agree that "too much has been made of the problems facing black people," and 25 percent say that "the policies of the Obama administration favor blacks over whites." Likewise, a survey conducted by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality found that Tea Partiers have a higher probability of being "racially resentful" than those who were not Tea Partiers.

To add my usual disclaimer, this isn't to say that conservatism is inherently tied to racism but to note that there's something about the combination of conservative political beliefs and negative feelings about African Americans that intensifies opposition to social programs. By and large, those with high racial resentment understand wealth transfers and redistributive programs as schemes to give "undeserved" benefits to blacks or other disfavored groups.

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