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Racial resentment: The insidious force that divides America

By Edward Lempinen

man wearing backward red Make America Great Again hat
The slogan “Make America Great Again” was a classic play to white racial resentment, said UC Berkeley scholar David C. Wilson. Without ever mentioning race, it conveyed a powerful appeal to white people anxious over shifting demographics. (Photo by James McNellis/Flickr)
man wearing backward red Make America Great Again hat

The slogan “Make America Great Again” was a classic play to white racial resentment, said UC Berkeley scholar David C. Wilson. Without ever mentioning race, it conveyed a powerful appeal to white people anxious over shifting demographics. (Photo by James McNellis/Flickr)

It’s easy to look back across decades to see the workings of stark racism in American political life: Mob lynchings and police killings. Poll taxes and literacy tests imposed to prevent Black people from voting. Politicians of the 1950s and ‘60s aggressively defending segregation, and their more recent counterparts who use racially coded “dog whistles” to whip their base voters into action.

David C Wilson smiles at the camera

David C. Wilson (Photo courtesy David C. Wilson)

Such aggressive, overt racism remains a force in American culture, sometimes resonating across decades, even centuries, to shape race relations today. But David C. Wilson , dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, says we need to be more aware of other, more subtle social dynamics that reinforce racial inequality and injustice.

In a new book, Racial Resentment in the Political Mind , Wilson and co-author Darren W. Davis argue that many white people perceive that Black people, because of their race,  unfairly receive enhancements that bring about racial equality, like scholarships, jobs and other advantages. Anxiety about the nation’s increasing diversity and what it means is making those resentments more intense, the authors say.

Those conflicts then play out in legislative bodies and the courts — indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has just agreed to hear two cases that challenge affirmative action in university admissions.

cover image of "Racial Resentment in the Political Mind"

“Racial Resentment in the Political Mind” (University of Chicago Press, 2022)

“When policies aimed at producing racial equality and justice are proposed, the opposition is, in part, due to racism or prejudice,” Wilson said in a recent interview. “But the stronger factors are tied to uncertainty about how the policies will disrupt a way of life that most whites have learned to navigate and benefit from. Rather than simply disliking African Americans or Hispanics, many white people also dislike distributing rewards or changing merit systems on the basis of a criterion they cannot benefit from.

“In that context, any racial progress today is perceived as coming at the expense of whites, even if it strengthens our democracy. … If you don’t pay attention to those psychological aspects of political decision-making, you’ll miss the nuance of American politics, let alone the politics of race.”

Wilson is a political psychologist; he assumed leadership at the Goldman School last July and also serves as a professor of public policy. Davis is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame whose research has focused on public opinion and political behavior.

Their book, released last month by University of Chicago Press, brings years of research to bear on a host of political issues that affect racial justice. The deep,  continuing impact of systemic racial inequality is a centuries-long failure of the American ideal, but Wilson and Davis offer an innovative, nuanced look at the psychological and political forces in contemporary culture that at once reject racism and defend the status quo.

In our era, Americans “are constantly having to balance the psychological scales of racial justice” in their daily lives, Wilson explained. That makes racial resentment almost inevitable. But, he added, if “one side of the scale wants to move while the other does not, it is impossible for change to happen.”

What racial resentment is — and what it isn’t

Centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws and other structural racism have imposed far-reaching costs on Black individuals and communities. What sets the current era apart, the authors suggest, is wide acceptance among Americans that racism is wrong and harmful. But where blunt racial prejudice has faded, racial resentment is potent, but widely misunderstood.

white protesters gather in opposition to school integration in Little Rock, Ark., in 1959. Signs read "Race Mixing is Communism" and "Stop the Race Mixing | March of the Antichrist"

Protests openly supporting segregation, like this 1959 event in Arkansas, were relatively common in the mid-20th century. Today, racial resentment among some white people reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge and repair the damages caused by a history of systemic racism, said author David C. Wilson. (Photo: Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection)

Prejudice and resentment are not synonymous, Wilson and Davis argue, and they are pointedly critical of the U.S. political science community for treating them as such. The concepts of racial resentment employed by researchers in the last 30 years don’t explain today’s prevalent, on-the-ground racial resentment — whether among white or Black people.

Wilson offers a more contemporary view: White racial resentment is reflected in the belief that race is “an unworthy and disagreeable” basis for determining merit. Such resentment toward Black people  reflects a belief “that African Americans are using race unfairly to gain status and material privilege in our society.”

In that view, racial resentment is not wholly about white hatred or oppression of Black people, at least not initially. Rather, the authors say, it expresses how some white people define fairness, and whether they perceive Black people to be playing by the rules, in a society where education, jobs, status — and power — are always in short supply and always contested.

But it also protects the dominant culture from thinking about how the society, over centuries, imposed profound and enduring damage on Black communities — or about the repairs still needed to achieve genuine racial equality.

Three factors that drive racial resentment

Wilson and Davis describe a racial resentment as a deep psychological dynamic that can be cultivated and exploited by political leaders and communications experts. The system is characterized by three key forces:

young man in hat holds hand-made sign that says: "All Lives Matter | Go Home & Get a Job"

A core driver of white racial resentment is a perception that Black people are getting special advantages from government or society that they have not earned and do not deserve, Wilson said. (Photo by Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr)

1. Deservingness. It is a simple, enduring — and erroneous — American story: If you study hard, work hard and live according to the values of the system, you will get ahead. And if life is difficult, you have to be resilient. In that narrative about American values, if you struggle, if you fail, it’s probably your own fault.

Most white people oppose racism, Wilson said. But many of those same people are likely to mistrust or oppose robust programs to achieve more diversity in university admissions or workplace hiring, or to dramatically reform police practices, because they are perceived to come at the expense of white people and a way of life that doesn’t need to change. They resent having to change in order to address a problem that they believe they did not create.

“For example, when you ask people to give up their property, their jobs or their children’s scholarships in order for there to be racial equality,” Wilson said, “they likely resist these ideas because they don’t think it’s fair that they have to give up something for somebody else to get something, especially if they believe they have worked hard for what they’ve received. This is where deservingness comes in.

“In essence, many whites today do not want to pay for the sins of their ancestors. To have to do so is unfair, in their minds. There is a low motivation to change and a high motivation to blame others for having to deal with the problem.

“Any group or institution that advocates for or imposes these policies will face a backlash.”

2. Blame-shifting. Imagine politically moderate white people who oppose racism but hold traditional values about self-reliance and fairness. When policies propose increased funding for schools in predominantly Black communities, or perhaps magnet school admissions using race, Wilson said, they will give less weight to how the policy advances equality and more weight to their values.

They understand racial inequality exists, but they do not believe that race should be a criteria for merit. To keep guilt at bay, they will redefine the cause of the problem in order to not appear racist.

Pro-police Blue Lives Matter protesters, with one carrying "Back the Blue" placard

After a surge in high-profile police killings of Black people, pro-police protesters in Springfield, Oregon, and elsewhere in the U.S. expressed support for the Blue Lives Matter movement. Critics have charged that the movement in effect downplays police violence against people of color and discriminatory police practices. (Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe via Wikipedia)

Wilson imagined their reasoning: “‘If we do give them scholarships, and all they do is burn down their buildings when something bad happens, or blame the police for their problems, then I don’t want to do that anymore,’ the person thinks. ‘If I’m silent, they even blame me for being silent. I can’t win.’”

According to Wilson’s research, something crucial happens in that psychological alchemy: In the racially resentful person’s eyes, Black people fail the test of deservingness. That person’s traditional values narrative is preserved — not by disliking Black people, but by the belief that adhering to the traditional values is more important than sacrificing for racial justice.

Said Wilson: “It becomes easier to say, ‘I’m not a racist, but I do not believe I should have to pay for others to succeed when they are not trying hard enough.’ It may be true they are not racist, but that doesn’t mean they are helping with the problem. In fact, they may even reason that there is no problem.”

The discomfort of internally conflicting values is resolved through blaming the victim.

3. Manipulation by political leaders. Political leaders and persuasion experts engage this resentment, and stoke it, for advantage on Election Day. For some conservatives and Republicans, and perhaps Democrats when they run against African American candidates, it is the art of “dog whistle” politics — subtle appeals to racial resentment that never actually mention race.

“They have this strategy down pat, ” Wilson said. “They understand that deservingness is the primary consideration for many voters and create themes that cast doubt on the intentions of candidates.

“Any messaging that signals that someone is somehow skirting the rules will instantly get people’s ears perked,” he continued. “Any message that says they’re not just skirting the rules, but they’re being rewarded for skirting the rules, will get people’s ears perked up even more. And there’s messaging that says, ‘They’ve been doing this for years, and look, you’re playing by the rules and not getting the same thing they’re getting.’”

Politicians have learned how to get people angry about the costs of racial equality, he said, rather than about the presence of racial inequality. The ploy works because of racial resentment.

Demographics are changing. The status quo, not so much.

On the surface, objections to race-targeted policies by white people are not only about race or racism — they’re also about fair play. But the impact is racial: They disempower critics who are seeking racial justice. They justify leaving the current system unchanged. They reinforce that the status quo works for people who play by existing rules.

Lone man at campaign rally holds sign saying "the silent majority stands with Trump"

Wilson, a political psychologist, suggested that former President Donald Trump has worked to stoke division and unrest through racialized messages to voters. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

That’s the deep power of racial resentment, Wilson said. And as the U.S. becomes more diverse, anxiety among white people may lead to more resentment and more resistance to change, especially among conservatives.

Changing demographics make many white people nervous about their future status. In Wilson’s view, they’re wondering: “Are we going to have to learn their language? Are we going to have to move, so that they can live in our neighborhoods? Will our country lose influence and look weak if they are in charge? If our taxes dollars go to funding their schools, what about funding for our schools?

Former President Donald Trump understood that fear and desire for order, and he openly exploited it. “Make America Great Again” was classic, Wilson said, because it appealed to the anxieties of change and fanned racial resentment without any explicit reference to race.

“Trump not only pushed that change is unnecessary,” he said, “but said that, on a continuum of racial progress, ‘We’ve gone too far. We need to not only stop, but we need to go back.’”

Underlying these tensions and conflicts, Wilson said, is a timeless truth: Many people prefer the known to the unknown, and so they resist change.

“If you try to get any one of us to change something that we’ve been doing for a long time, and if we really believe in it — you’ll see resentment when the change agent really pushes you,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean you dislike or hate the change agent. It means, ‘You’re asking us to do something that we don’t know anything about, and we’re afraid.’ Rather than admit fear, they defend the status quo, and blame others for trying to mess things up.

“The status quo … calms us. It gives us some certainty about the world.”

How do we bring everyone to the table?

That insight holds enormous importance for advocates in many areas — not just for those seeking racial justice, but for those campaigning to control climate change or reduce local water consumption.

How we should have those conversations or structure those campaigns is beyond the scope of Wilson’s new book. But the authors seem to suggest that without dialogue and trust-building, polarization will persist, and progress will be exceedingly difficult.

Rather, they say, we can improve dialogue if we understand how uncertainty and insecurity feed resentment, leaving even well-intentioned people vulnerable to political manipulation.

We can’t just leave things the way they are and still get to racial equality,” Wilson said. “It will take a radical change. But we diminish our options when we just blame racism and prejudice.

“Just call someone a racist? That’s easy — but it’s not going to get you very far. If they say they’re not, and you say they are, do you think you’re going to ever persuade them to do something differently?”

“No,” he said flatly. “They’re not even going to come to the table anymore.”