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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Thinking About White Identity, Consciousness, Racial Resentment

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

White Identity, Consciousness, Racial Resentment.

These terms get thrown around a lot and are seldom rigorously defined. Tom Edsall provides a useful discussion in his latest column on how contemporary political scientists tend to use these terms. One thing it seems to establish is that views associated with these terms are complex and should not be reduced to sheer racial bigotry (especially if one’s goal to move some of these voters away from the Trump/GOP camp).

Edsall’s article prominently cites the research of Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina:

“According to Jardina, “higher levels of white identity are somewhat linked to higher levels of racial animosity.” At the same time, she contends in her book:

A small percentage of white identifiers score quite high on measures of racial prejudice or resentment, but many more white identifiers possess average and even low levels of racial prejudice. In other words, white identity is not defined by racial animus, and whites who identify with their racial group are not simply reducible to bigots.”

There is also discussion of the ever-popular “racial resentment” scale, which is somewhat promiscuously used in political science research. The racial resentment scale is based on “responses to four survey items, with response options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree for each. The survey items ask respondents if they agree/disagree that (1) blacks should work their way up without any special favors; (2) generations of slavery and discrimination make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class; (3) blacks have gotten less than they deserve; (4) blacks must try harder to get ahead. The index is scaled to range from 0 (least resentful) to 1 (most resentful).”

Edsall properly notes that interpretation of these responses is vexed; these responses–and their associated scale–may not, in fact, mean what many researchers assume they mean. In so doing, he cites the landmark Carney-Enos study, which deserves to be more widely-known.

“There is an ongoing dispute over the use of such questions to measure racial resentment. Jardina acknowledges that “some scholars are critical of this framework” and “argue that racial resentment entangles conservative principles, like individualism, with racial prejudice.”

Most recently, Riley Carney and Ryan Enos, political scientists at Harvard, have sought to assess the validity of racial resentment questions in their working paper, “Conservatism and Fairness in Contemporary Politics: Unpacking the Psychological Underpinnings of Modern Racism.”

In survey experiments, Carney and Enos substituted Lithuanians and other nationalities for African-Americans so that the first resentment question would ask for agreement or disagreement with the statement: “Lithuanians should work their way up without any special favors.” Their conclusion:

The results obtained using groups other than blacks are substantively indistinguishable from those measured when blacks are the target group. Decomposing this measure further, we find that political conservatives express only minor differences in resentment across target groups. Far greater differences in resentment toward blacks and other groups can be found among racially sympathetic liberals. In short, we find that modern racism questions appear to measure attitudes toward any group, rather than African-Americans alone.

Carney and Enos conclude that the “modern racism scales” fail to capture attitudes specific to African-Americans. However, the scales do capture a form of racism, both a general resentment that applies to many groups and a specific failure to recognize the unique historical plight of African-Americans.”

Food for thought. Something to keep in mind when you read the next study linking racial resentment to Trump/GOP/whatever voting.

3 comments on “Teixeira: Thinking About White Identity, Consciousness, Racial Resentment

  1. Candace on

    As is often the case I cant figure out what point you are trying to make by what you quote that is supposed to help the Democratic party and American society.
    Most of what you linked to (the actual article itself) read like people talking about their favorite White specimens being viewed from inside some laboratory that must be “understood” with a pat on the head and a few doggie biscuits to soften them up.
    But also it looked like research for Republican politicians and their strategists to more effectively manipulate their white identifying voters and common opinions of those voters affection for and affiliation to White Nationalism

    Rather than focus on trying to make divisions more acceptable and protect the feelings of people promoting those divisions who aren’t asking to be coddled, I hope strategists that Democrat politicians listen to will make efforts to focus on what unites all Americans which would be the same thing everywhere in the world. I’m going to leave that open because it should be obvious and as we all know the Republicans are always watching. 🙂

    • Martin Lawford on

      If your complaint is that the political scientists used a flawed method, then you should point out what that flaw is. Or, if your complaint is that they used a valid method which produced results you dislike, you must deal with evidently valid results. Whatever you do, you cannot have it both ways.

    • Ali Bertarian on

      “I hope strategists that Democrat politicians listen to will make efforts to focus on what unites all Americans which would be the same thing everywhere in the world.”

      Even for those few things that we have in common, we surely have much different means of effecting those commonalities.


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