The Rising Tide of Anti-Black Racism


This image was distributed by a Republican organization in San Bernardino, California during the 2008 Presidential election.

Thomas Edsall has a fascinating column in today’s New York Times on the persistence of racial resentment in the Obama-era. For those not familiar with the term, “racial resentment” is defined as the convergence of anti-black sentiments with traditional American views on hard work and individualism.

It’s measured using questions that focus on race and effort. People who answer in the affirmative to questions like this—“Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors”—and in the negative to questions like this—“Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class”—are assigned a high place on the resentment scale.

Edsall runs though recent research from a variety of sources to show the extent to which President Obama’s term has coincided with a sharp increase in the proportion of Americans who express anti-black attitudes. In one survey, for example, “The percentage of voters with explicit anti-black attitudes rose from 47.6 in 2008 and 47.3 percent in 2010 to 50.9 percent in 2012.” This wasn’t a uniform change—not only were Republicans more likely to express anti-black attitudes, but people who identified themselves as Republicans in 2012 expressed such attitudes more often than their counterparts of 2008:

In 2008, Pasek and his collaborators note, the proportion of people expressing anti-Black attitudes was 31 percent among Democrats, 49 percent among independents, and 71 percent among Republicans. By 2012, the numbers had gone up. “The proportion of people expressing anti-Black attitudes,” they write, “was 32 percent among Democrats, 48 percent among independents, and 79 percent among Republicans.”

Edsall sees this as a crucial through-line in the ongoing story of GOP extremism. Growing racial resentment has deepened the conservatism of right-wing Republicans, and contributed to their total rejection of President Obama and the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2012.

It’s worth noting the real disputes over the racial resentment scale. Over the years, a growing group of political scientists have questioned the actual influence of ideology on anti-black attitudes. Racial resentment is seen as a form of “new prejudice”: It’s not racism as much as it is an outgrowth of traditional ideas about individualism, hard work, and equality of treatment. “Everyone can succeed if they try, and those who don’t succeed, just aren’t trying—there’s no use in crying ‘racism,’ it’s an excuse.” In this narrative, opposition to race-conscious policies has less to do with outright animus, and more with a belief in equal opportunity and a desire to treat people fairly.

But the divide between racism and ideology isn’t so neat—as has been true throughout American history, beliefs about race are hard to separate from political ideology. To wit, a recent study from Oberlin political scientist Christopher DeSante found that when you put blacks and whites in direct competition for scarce resources, “racial prejudice interacts with American norms of hard work to amplify white racial privilege.”

In DeSante’s experiment, participants are asked to allocate $1,500 in welfare benefits to two applicants. All applicants are women and divided into two categories, “poor or excellent” work ethic. Two of the applicants had stereotypically “white” names—“Laurie and Emily”—and two have comparable black names, “Latoya and Keisha.” Participants could also distribute benefits to a deficit-reduction fund. The hypothesis is straightforward: If racial resentment is more principle than prejudice, then high scorers will give more money to deficit reduction, with the fewest benefits going to applicants with poor work ethic, regardless of race.

Overall, those with the most racial resentment were the least likely to spend benefits on welfare. But this varied with the race of the applicants. When faced with two black applicants, the racially resentful gave far less than when faced with two white ones. “As whites become more racially resentful,” writes DeSante, “they are less willing to spend money on welfare, but are always willing to spend more on applicants with white names.”

Put another way, the “neutral” American principles of hard work, individualism, and equal treatment tend to benefit whites in fights over how to distribute government aid. But it’s not that whites are seen as more deserving of aid as much as it is that race colors perceptions of hard work and laziness—“whites gain more for the same level of effort and blacks are punished more severely for the same level of ‘laziness.’” When all things were equal, DeSante found, white applicants were worth $100 more than their black counterparts, and blacks with “poor” work ethic lost four times as much than whites with a similar rating.

It should be said that it’s unfair to tar all conservatives—or even most—as somehow driven by racial animus. As I’ve stated before, race shapes right-wing opposition to Obama, but doesn’t define it. Still, these results signal that outright racism might have more to do with opposition to Obama than we think. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

White supremacy was the explicit governing ideology of this country for most of its history. It guided our ideas about democracy, and it informed our views on the role of government. So much of American public policy was designed to improve economic mobility for whites, and limit it for blacks. They were kept out of decent schools, decent jobs, and decent housing. The goal of segregation, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in a recent post, was to render blacks a permanent underclass. It was a success.

Are Republicans racist? No. Does racism play a big part in opposition to Obama and welfare state? Absolutely. To think otherwise, given our history, is a little insane.