07.14.2011

Liberals and Racism

Misreading the tea leaves.

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These are dark times for American liberalism. Health care reform is popularly reviled. Barack Obama’s reelection is in doubt. And as I write this, Democrats, under the aegis of debt-ceiling talks with Republicans, appear on the brink of ratifying a savage attack on the welfare state. It seems hard to remember now, but less than three years ago the 2008 election had liberals convinced that America was on the verge of a historic progressive revival. What went wrong?

In a mechanical sense, the economy — more precisely, the Little Depression we are now living through — is at the center of the trouble. But that same bad economy is what catapulted the Democrats into power in the first place, handing them control of both houses of Congress, the presidency, and a brief filibuster-proof Senate supermajority for the first time in thirty years.; liberal optimism, battered and bruised from Bush-era despondency, soared. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if the liberal fall can be blamed on a fickle business cycle, the original liberal rise, too, must be put down to an economic fluke.

Already one can glimpse the emergence of a liberal narrative of consolation, a sort of comforting theodicy for the politically dispossessed; a story that can explain the cruel whims of the political gods to suffering liberal humanity. If liberalism appears to wobble on the edge of failure, the fault may arise not from anything liberals have done or have failed to do, but if anything from their own moral blamelessness: Liberalism, in this narrative, is faltering because its enlightened political project has run into a wall of blind, irrational racism.


This narrative could be seen in the liberal discourse over the Tea Party. In 2009 and 2010, as the popular right-wing upsurge threatened the whole edifice of Obamism, a virtual cottage industry developed on liberal websites devoted to spotting real or imputed racist sentiments in the Tea Party milieu. Much of it amounted to a mirror image of the sort of anti-guy-with-a-sign-ism that proved so popular on the Right in the days of anti–Iraq War protests. At one point, American Prospect blogger Jamelle Bouie managed to squeeze a whole blog post (headlined “Racism and the Tea Party, Cont.”) out of a local newspaper report revealing that one Ron Wight, a “semi-retired music teacher fromLee’s Summit, [Missouri]” had made a racially vicious comment at a Kansas City Tea Party rally attended by “dozens.”

But anecdotes soon gave way to data as the artillery of social science was brought to bear against the massed forces of anti-Obama reaction. The argument for the fundamentally racist essence of the opposition owed largely to a concept, drawn from the academic study of public opinion, known as “racial resentment.” Developed in its modern form by University of Michigan political scientist Donald Kinder and his collaborators, racial resentment is both a theory and a body of evidence that purport to illuminate the influence of racial hostility on the political opinions of American whites.

The argument, in summary, goes like this: Once upon a time, “old-fashioned” racism, based on the belief in the inherent inferiority of blacks and other non-whites, was widespread. Since the civil rights revolution, however, that type of racism has faded, only to be replaced by a newer and more subtle form of prejudice. The new version, originally called symbolic racism (now racial resentment), is a blend of anti-black sentiment and traditional individualist American values (the work ethic, personal responsibility, anti-statism), a concoction whose “colorblind” palatability only makes it that much more insidious. According to Kinder, racial resentment is now “the primary ingredient in white opinion on racial affairs.”

How can you tell if someone is racially resentful? Typically, measurement is carried out using a battery of survey questions in which respondents rate their level of agreement or disagreement with four statements:

  • “Irish, Italians, Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and
    worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
  • “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
  • “Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less then they deserve.”
  • “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would
    only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.”

Political scientists have been debating the nature and influence of “racial resentment” for more than thirty years now, and the debate “has been among the most contentious in all of public opinion research,” in the words of two scholars who have reviewed the literature. The layman ventures into this voluminous and statistically baroque literature at his own peril.

But one conclusion is clear: liberals who have seized on it to furnish themselves with a usable narrative are not so much enlisting in a noble fight against racism as they are indulging in an ideological evasion. Racial resentment is attractive to liberals less because the Right’s racial attitudes are backward (though they are), than because the dominant, non-racial part of its ideology — a reactionary Protestant-capitalist ethic that is deeply entrenched in American discourse — has never been met with any systematic liberal opposition.


In March, a think tank called the Greenlining Institute released a paper attempting to highlight the role of “racial resentment” in fostering white opposition to Obama’s health reform. Its findings were eagerly flagged on the usual websites like the Huffington Post (“Surprising Way Race Colors Attitudes to Health Care Reform”) and the American Prospect (“Race, Resentment, and Health Care Reform”). As is common in the literature, the paper’s authors performed a multivariate regression — a statistical exercise designed to sort out the separate influence of different causal factors — to identify the sources of white opinion toward Obama’s health care plan (using data from the 2010 American National Election Study). The paper’s findings sounded impressive: “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.”

But the numbers looked less impressive. According to the data reported in the paper’s appendix, the effect of racial resentment on support for health care reform was miniscule — it was dwarfed by the effect of political party (more than twice as large), gender (more than three times as large), and, above all, attitudes toward Obama (almost eight times as large). It was even matched by the effect of age — that is, the respondent’s age, after controlling for racial resentment, predicted support for health reform just as well as racial resentment itself did (after controlling for age).

One result the authors seemed to find especially significant was that while a more positive attitude toward Obama strongly increased support for health care reform among the less racially resentful, those high in racial resentment didn’t become any more friendly to reform as their opinions of Obama improved. Even on its face, this is a rather ambiguous finding. And the chart in the paper showed that the effect operated in an extremely odd way: Among those who disliked Obama, higher racial resentment actually increased support for health reform; it only decreased support among those who liked Obama. So in the mixed-up world of racial resentment, the racists whose bigotry is depressing support for Obama’s agenda are precisely those who like Obama himself.

A more scholarly look at the same question came from UCLA political scientist Michael Tesler. In a 2010 paper, he found that racial resentment had become a significantly better predictor of white views on health care policy by September 2009, when the health care debate was raging, than it had been before the debate had begun, in March 2009. It’s an interesting finding — one that Tesler quite plausibly attributes to the fact that by September a black president had become the public face of health reform. But the size of the effect Tesler found was still unimpressive, even after the increase. The effects of the respondent’s party and ideology, after controlling for racial resentment, were each one-and-a-half times as large as the effect of racial resentment (after controlling for party and ideology) and they were two-and-a-half times as large as the effects of anti-black stereotypes and judgments.

One interesting aspect of Tesler’s paper was his discussion of a clever experiment designed to tease out the impact that Obama’s racial identity had on white political opinion. Different groups of whites were asked the same battery of questions on health reform and the stimulus package, but for some respondents these were described as Obama’s policies while for others they were described as the Congressional Democrats’ policies. (Or, in the case of universal health care, they were described as policies once advocated by Bill Clinton.) Again and again, Tesler’s charts show that racial resentment became a stronger predictor of policy attitudes when the questions were framed around Obama. On the stimulus package, for example, the distribution of responses was heavily affected by racial resentment when Obama was cited as its author, but resentment had virtually no effect when the policy was attributed to Congressional Democrats.

Yet, as in the Greenlining Institute study, this finding came with a paradox: as Tesler’s chart seems to show, the overall level of white support for stimulus was higher when Obama was cited as the policy’s author. That’s because all but those with the highest racial resentment scores rated stimulus much more positively when it was associated with Obama than when it was associated with Congressional Democrats; the lower the respondents’ level of racial resentment, the bigger the boost that stimulus support received from having the question reframed around Obama. Now, on one level this isn’t surprising, since in polls Obama is always more popular than Congress or either of the Congressional party caucuses. But it also means that in the final accounting, the activation of “racial resentment,” triggered by the mention of Obama’s name, actually had the net effect of increasing support for his stimulus policy.

A slightly different public opinion construct, called ethnocentrism, has also been advanced as a way of explaining white attitudes. (Like racial resentment, it also owes its fame to Donald Kinder.) The ethnocentrism measure is based on survey questions that ask about different ethnic groups — specifically, how hardworking, honest, and reliable they are. The respondent’s ratings of other ethnic groups are compared with his ratings of his own group; the lower the respondent rates other ethnic groups relative to his own, the more ethnocentric he is considered to be. In their book Us Against Them, Kinder and his coauthor, Cindy Kam, argue that ethnocentrism is a good predictor of white attitudes on a wide range of issues. For some of the issues they examine, this finding may not be terribly surprising; it’s not a shock, for example, to learn that white opponents of immigration have dimmer views of non-whites than do immigration supporters.

But Kinder and Kam also make the same claim regarding attitudes toward welfare. (This was a point picked up by the blogger Matt Yglesias last year in a post on the Right’s “small-government hypocrisy.”) And indeed, Kinder and Kam show that ethnocentrism was a good predictor of white opinions on welfare in 1996 — the year of Clinton’s welfare reform (and of the noxious debate surrounding it): holding all other factors equal, the chances that a hypothetical “average” white respondent favored cuts to welfare were 64% if she had a “low” ethnocentrism score but 81% if her ethnocentrism score was “high.” But as in the case of the racial resentment studies, ethnocentrism was, again, hardly the most important influence here. Respondents’ levels of “egalitarianism” — as measured by their scores on a separate battery of questions, most of which tapped into notions of equality of opportunity rather than of condition — predicted opinions on welfare and food stamps spending two to three times more strongly than ethnocentrism.

On one question cited by Kinder and Kam — a question measuring support for imposing two-year time limits on welfare recipients —  the effect of ethnocentrism was admittedly greater than that of egalitarianism. But again one must be careful to distinguish between the impact of racial attitudes on the distribution of opinions and their impact on the overall level of opinion. For in the case of the time limit question —  and in contrast with most other questions on welfare policy —  the overall level of black support for time limits did not differ very much from that of whites. Time limits were “strongly favored” by 59.9% of whites and by 58.1% of blacks.1 Thus, on the one hand, antipathy toward blacks was clearly able, in part, to predict which whites would support time limits. But it would be hard to argue that it explained much of the overall level of white support for time limits, given that the level of black support was almost as high.

The crudest sally into the racial resentment literature — and the one that got the most attention, being picked up by NPR, Salon, ThinkProgress, and others — was from the University of Washington’s Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality (WISER). The point of the WISER study, which was based on the group’s own poll of seven states (heavily weighted toward states in the Greater South, including none in the northeast), was to make the blunt point that the Tea Party is racist. The most widely circulated part of the study was a table comparing the responses of strong Tea Party supporters and strong Tea Party opponents (as well as those in the middle) to the questions from the racial-resentment battery. There we learn, for example, that whereas 88% of strong Tea Party supporters think blacks should work their way up “without special favors,” just like the Irish and Italians supposedly did, “only” 67% of middle-of-the-roaders thought so. And so on.

There is nothing surprising about these results, since the vast majority of Tea Party supporters are very conservative Republicans and it’s been a truism in the racial resentment literature for decades that conservatism is associated with higher “racial resentment” scores. The study’s authors gesture towards addressing this point by reporting the results of a multivariate regression in which party and ideology are controlled for. All else equal, we learn there that moving from strong opposition to strong support of the Tea Party — while somehow holding party and ideology constant — increases the chances of being racially resentful by 25%. But this finding doesn’t get us much further. Any statistical exercise that purports to measure the “effect” of Tea Partyism while “controlling” for party and ideology logically must conjure up such implausible chimera as liberal Tea Partiers who vote Democrat. The underlying factual point remains: conservative responses to the “racial resentment” questions are associated with a conservative and individualist ideology that finds wide purchase in American society.


The crudeness of the WISER study offers a vantage point from which to consider the underlying soundness of the whole enterprise. As noted above, “racial resentment” is defined by its creators as a blend of racial animus and traditional American individualism. The first point to note, then, is that the label itself is somewhat misleading since, while it highlights the racial aspect of the attitude, it conceals the concept’s close kinship with the individualist ethos.

Consider one of the questions on the racial resentment battery: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.” Agreeing with this statement, on the one hand, evinces a negative opinion of blacks: they don’t work hard enough. But it also demonstrates agreement with one of the hoariest and most beloved elements of the American creed — propounded by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama to Ralph Waldo Emerson — namely that with hard work anyone can overcome their circumstances and succeed. In the 1986 National Election Study, 59% of whites agreed with the statement about blacks being able to succeed if they only worked harder. But in the same study, 86% of them agreed with the general proposition that “any person who is willing to work hard has a good chance of succeeding.” Agreement with the first statement is counted by social scientists as “racial resentment”; agreement with the second statement is counted merely as a measure of “individualism.” Yet, if taken literally, the second statement implies the first. And the paradox is compounded by the fact that blacks agreed with the individualism statement even more strongly than whites did. Thus, “racial resentment” may be thought of as a sort of racially consistent individualism — an individualism that takes itself sufficiently seriously not to be deterred by the overwhelming evidence of structural impediments to black advancement. The racial aspect of “racial resentment” can be seen as analogous to spandrels — those architectural features consisting of an absence, of a negative space defined by some surrounding positive structure. Racial resentment is old-fashioned American individualism without the racially-aware caveats and qualifications that must be appended to it by anyone with a basic awareness of the structurally subordinate position that blacks have occupied in the American political economy.

If the “racial resentment” term itself is misleading, the interpretations put forward by liberals of its role in Tea Partyism or opposition to health care reform are doubly so. The data show that if asked by an interviewer, Tea Partiers are more likely to say blacks could succeed if they worked harder, that they should work their way up “without special favors,” and so on. The inference made by liberals is that while Tea Partiers may rant about stimulus or health care reform, what they’re really expressing deep down is their resentment of blacks. But this doesn’t follow, nor does the evidence seem to substantiate it. In fact, the WISER study discussed above included a content analysis of Tea Party websites in eleven states. Their own data show that only 4% of the content dealt with “race” or gay issues and another 6% with immigration. The great bulk of the verbiage addressed exactly the themes that the Tea Partiers always say they’re most concerned about: socialism and the evils of the state (23%); patriotism and “taking our country back” (10%); big government (14%), and so on. In its crudest form the racial-resentment argument amounts to a sort of debating trick that could be just as easily turned around against liberals. Surveys show consistently, for example, that the more patriotism one expresses, the more likely one is to be a conservative. By the logic of the racial-resentment theory, it could therefore be said — à la Glenn Beck —  that while liberals claim to be for equality or civil liberties, what’s really motivating them is their hatred for America — and that the statistics prove it. In other words, the liberal fixation on racial resentment as an explanation of conservatism tells us more about liberals than it does about the “racially resentful.”

Make no mistake; my intention isn’t to praise or defend the Tea Partiers or the braying geriatrics who bum-rushed the health care reform town halls two summers ago. It is to ask why liberals, when faced with the political idiom of the American Right, gravitate so insistently toward racialized accounts of their motives. The Right talks endlessly about freedom, defined as negative liberty; yet liberals in their ordinary political discourse have no critique of the right-wing concept of freedom. The Right loudly and consistently champions free markets and capitalism; yet liberals have no principled critique of free markets or capitalism.

Unable or unwilling to articulate any coherent rebuttal of their opponents’ ideological rhetoric, liberals instinctively resort to accusations that the opposing ideology is covertly racist because racism —  unlike Reaganite celebrations of the magic of the market — requires no refutation.


  1. If all answers are coded, averaged, and placed on a 0-100 scale where 100 is the most conservative response, white and black scores on the welfare spending question were 76 and 48. By contrast, on the time limit question they were 76 and 68.