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The Role of Racial Resentment in Our Politics

The parties seem further apart on questions of race today than they have been for some time—but the truth is more complicated.

February 23, 2022
Black Lives Matter protestor holds up a flag at a rally at the Washington Monument
Probal Rashid/Getty

This article first appeared in The Bulwark.

If you think race is a minor part of, or even a distrac­tion from, the broader debate about the future of our demo­cracy, let me intro­duce you to the last couple of weeks in Amer­ican polit­ics.

When Pres­id­ent Joe Biden announced his inten­tion to follow through on a campaign pledge to nomin­ate a black woman to fill the seat of retir­ing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a chorus of voices on the right grabbed every mic in sight to decry the pres­id­ent for eschew­ing merito­cracy in favor of iden­tity polit­ics. And a few days later, when Donald Trump sugges­ted during a campaign rally that he would pardon the convicted Jan. 6th insur­rec­tion­ists (many of whom openly displayed their racism), folks on the left we-told-you-so’d over how in-step the former pres­id­ent’s move was with the right-wing polit­ics of white griev­ance.

There is a real sense that the parties are further apart on ques­tions of race today than they have been for some time—each side being pulled to the poles. But the truth is more complic­ated. The yawn­ing gap between the parties is not, as is often sugges­ted, because Repub­lic­ans have become more racist and Demo­crats have become more woke; it is because the left has become more progress­ive on racial inequal­ity while the right has forti­fied its pre-exist­ing posi­tion.

Ian Shapiro, a colleague of mine at the Bren­nan Center for Justice, examined the levels of racial resent­ment among white Repub­lic­ans and white Demo­crats going back to 1986, draw­ing on time-series data from the Amer­ican National Elec­tion Stud­ies. The data show that the two groups were close together and moving in tandem in the late 1980s and early ’90s, white Demo­crats harbor­ing slightly less resent­ment than their Repub­lican coun­ter­parts. The distance between the two, however, gradu­ally increased between the mid-’90s and the early 2010s. And then, from 2012 forward, the gap exploded—the bottom drop­ping out of racial resent­ment levels among white Demo­crats.

Graph titled "Movement Among Democrats Drive Differences in Racial Resentment (1986-2020)"

First, a word about racial resent­ment. The metric was developed by polit­ical scient­ists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders in the 1980s as a way to meas­ure white Amer­ic­ans’ atti­tudes toward black Amer­ic­ans. It is based on respond­ents’ answers to ques­tions about how much they attrib­ute socioeco­nomic dispar­it­ies between black and white Amer­ic­ans to slavery and racial discrim­in­a­tion or to a lack of hard work and persever­ance by black Amer­ic­ans. The more an indi­vidual agrees with the general senti­ment that black people’s lack of effort is the primary reason for racial dispar­it­ies, the higher that indi­vidu­al’s racial resent­ment score. And study after study has shown that people who voted for Donald Trump had higher levels of racial resent­ment than those who did not.

Here is what the meas­ure is not: an x-ray; it is incap­able of determ­in­ing if there is, in fact, a racist bone in your body. Despite what some conveni­ent misin­ter­pret­a­tions might suggest, the racial resent­ment scale is not the equi­val­ent of meas­ur­ing personal bigo­tries or one’s racial hatred of a group. Moreover, some schol­ars have poin­ted out that it may be better under­stood as a meas­ure of one’s world­view. People who prize indi­vidu­al­ism and a Puritan work ethic may register as having high levels of racial resent­ment even though their responses could more aptly be attrib­uted to a conser­vat­ive ideo­logy than to overt preju­dices toward black people. Through this lens, little wonder, then, that white Repub­lic­ans as a group consist­ently show higher levels of resent­ment.

•  •  •

Yet, even with its imper­fec­tions in explain­ing race and voter atti­tudes, the racial resent­ment scale can serve as a useful tool in under­stand­ing the grow­ing differ­ences between white partis­ans and how views on racial groups inter­sect with elect­oral polit­ics. Whereas white Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats used to hold similar views on black Amer­ic­ans’ status, they now hold deeply diver­gent posi­tions on whether that status is owed to struc­tural causes or personal beha­vior. The very public racial­iz­a­tion of this change by the folks with loudest mega­phones—and the lack of penalty for expli­cit racial intol­er­ance—is caus­ing real harm to our demo­cracy.

As such, it feels some­what intu­it­ive that 2016 would lead to a dramatic shift. The Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial primar­ies show­cased the appeal of Trump’s popu­list mantle construc­ted from the preju­dices toward people of differ­ent races, ethni­cit­ies, reli­gions, and partic­u­lar nations of origin. Mean­while, the rise of a more progress­ive wing of the Demo­cratic party contested estab­lish­ment candid­ates in pres­id­en­tial and congres­sional primar­ies, unseat­ing senior Demo­crats and push­ing the party to spot­light systemic racism in its plat­form.

The gap between white Demo­crats and white Repub­lic­ans had been slowly widen­ing since the 1990s, but start­ing around 2012 it grew much more rapidly. One possible explan­a­tion for this timing: The killing of Trayvon Martin that year and the arrival the next year of the Black Lives Matter move­ment. The series of events that followed—a drum­beat of videos of black people being shot or strangled by police, milit­ar­ized law enforce­ment clash­ing with protest­ers plastered nonstop on cable news, the demon­iz­a­tion of kneel­ing athletes, and so on—show­cased for white Demo­crats the struc­tural nature of the chal­lenges their black fellow partis­ans had long described.

It became clearer to them that a Puritan work ethic cannot escape a choke­hold . . . that there’s no amount of trying harder that would have saved the nine black parish­ion­ers killed at Wednes­day night Bible study by a self-avowed white suprem­acist. The small conver­sions on the right we saw follow­ing George Floy­d’s murder­—­think Mitt Romney march­ing with Chris­tian evan­gel­ic­als while selfie-tweet­ing “Black Lives Matter”—had occurred nearly a decade earlier among white Amer­ic­ans on the left and with much larger effect.

Given all this, the present moment becomes a bit clearer. The manu­fac­tured polit­ical outrage over crit­ical race theory, the 1619 Project, Biden’s Supreme Court pick, and trumped-up tales of voter fraud occur­ring in communit­ies of color inten­tion­ally exacer­bates a sense of racial divi­sion in the public in the name of polit­ical expedi­ence. It feeds media narrat­ives and elect­oral strategies that capit­al­ize on the white griev­ance on the right and the demands for inclu­sion on the left. On the left, the partisan racial resent­ment dispar­ity signals how race-cent­ric appeals can mobil­ize a multiracial elect­or­ate; it’s not an acci­dent that “Jim Crow 2.0” was used by some to char­ac­ter­ize the need for voting rights legis­la­tion. And on the right, the racial resent­ment divide shows how white ethnon­a­tion­al­ist appeals can be veiled by a colorblind conser­vat­is­m—an evol­u­tion of the dog-whist­ling rhet­oric that accom­pan­ied the South­ern Strategy.

The effect is that Amer­ic­ans sense racial tensions are running exceed­ingly high and that half the coun­try lives on a differ­ent planet. It bogs down long over­due and crit­ic­ally import­ant polit­ical debates—de­bates that must contend with the contin­ued pres­ence of racism and its dele­ter­i­ous effect­s—with disin­genu­ous and super­fi­cial takes on race rela­tions that distract from the systemic reforms that two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans desire.

In this light, a long­stand­ing truth resur­faces: Race rela­tions is the means by which the weak­nesses and vulner­ab­il­it­ies of our demo­cratic soci­ety become most appar­ent. It is the domin­ant factor influ­en­cing who bene­fits, who is harmed, and which inequal­it­ies result from govern­ment action—or inac­tion. We cannot have real conver­sa­tions about the future of our coun­try—the size of govern­ment, the rights of indi­vidu­als, the roles of insti­tu­tions, the fair­ness of processes, the equal­ity of oppor­tun­ity—if we do not wrestle with how much our posi­tions on these things are shaped by our views on race.