Race, Racism, and Resentment

by on August 5, 2008 · 4 comments

in General Politics

Andrew Sullivan runs the following “smart observations” from Publius at Obsidian Wings:

I’m a child of the rural South. But you know what? Actual racism is a lot less common there — we have a ways to go, but there has been real progress on that front. The more serious problem is white resentment. A lot of white people honestly think they have been significantly deprived of various things because of minorities. And it’s hard to overstate how deeply these feelings run.


It’s not so much animosity toward people who are different — it’s the animosity of the aggrieved. They feel like they are the victims. That’s why race is a losing issue for Obama — it’s not so much that people are racist, but that they feel they are being punished because they’re white (yes, I know how completely absurd this must sound to the black community).

Sullivan then adds, “This is the poisoned fruit of that poisonous, if well-intentioned, policy of affirmative action.”

Publius is right that racial resentment rather biological racism (the belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites) is much more prevalent (though not entirely absent) among contemporary whites. Nonetheless, such views didn’t originate because of affirmative action. Since the beginning of slavery, most whites have looked at race relations as a zero-sum game; any benefit for blacks must entail an equal or greater cost for whites. Slavery’s defenders argued that ending the peculiar institution would necessarily degrade the economic and social standing of whites. After slavery, proponents of Jim Crow claimed that extending civil rights to blacks would do the same. For example, when he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (a measure that extended to the freedmen such basic privileges of citizenship as the right to make contracts, to own property, and to appear as witnesses in court, among others), President Andrew Johnson claimed that the bill would “operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” In striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Justice Joseph Bradley argued that it was time for blacks to cease being the “special favorite of the laws

Similar arguments came from white opponents of the Civil Rights Movement. Integrating schools and public accommodations, they claimed, would infringe on the rights of whites to avoid mingling with other races. Open housing would deny property rights to white home owners and landlords. Unsurprisingly, David Duke’s website is called “WhiteCivilRights.com. Given this history, even if affirmative action had never existed, resentment would still be a significant part of the racial views of many whites.

{ 4 comments }

alejandro mg August 7, 2008 at 4:21 pm

hi IM aleks , IM victim abuot to racis in my country Im need help!

please , could you helpme?

JoshuaHerring August 8, 2008 at 3:48 am

Given this history, even if affirmative action had never existed, resentment would still be a significant part of the racial views of many whites.

This conclusion seems a bit sloppy. There is a difference between rationally resenting affirmative action (which is, after all, a race-based preferences scheme) and irrationally resenting the extension of the rule of law to people of all races. Affirmative action doesn’t become morally acceptable just because abolishing it would fail to completely end white resentment. I should think the more interesting question was whether there were a measurable relative increase in white resentment (which has presumably been on the decline in absolute terms since an initial spike in the 1870s) after affirmative action programs came into vogue. Absent evidence that affirmative action has had little or no effect on the level of white resentment, your conclusion doesn’t follow.

JMA August 8, 2008 at 7:21 am

How important is the distinction between Kinder and Sears’ “racial resentment” and “realistic group conflict” a la Lawrence Bobo? Racial resentment is discussed, but what is described – zero-sum competition for resources – sounds more like realistic group conflict.

Bruce Baugh August 10, 2008 at 2:11 am

Resentment of affirmative action is logical only if at least the first two and preferably all three of these apply:

1. You can demonstrate that black people (and women, and other out-of-power groups) do not experience ongoing discrimination in employment, dealings with the authorities, and so on. Since there’s a wealth of data to show that they do, in everything from banking to treatment by the cops, this is a no-show.

2. You can make any plausible argument that the beneficiaries of affirmative action have in some meaningful way not used their opportunities as well as white males in those positions would have. Tricky, but possibly not as utterly hopeless as the first.

3. You can show that you yourself have in any way been negatively affected by affirmative action. Almost never the case, in practice.

The kind of people that Publius is on about need to be reminded early and often that they are in fact the recipients of far more largesse than almost anyone they’re complaining about, and that their resentment of others is a distraction of the task of learning the basic morality that other parts of the country have – how to honor their marriage vows, protect their children, not abuse their spouses, and all the rest. We may understand it without condoning it.

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