Obama and Racial Resentment, Again

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The American Prospect
By Jamelle Bouie

At the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Alan Abramowitzinvestigates the affect of racial resentment on opinions of President Obama.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, “racial resentment” is a political framework that fuses whites’ belief in traditional conservative values (hard work equals success, for example) with negative opinions about African Americans as a group. Typically, whites who score high in racial resentment are less likely to believe that racism has had negative, long-lasting effects on African American progress, more likely to believe that blacks could easily get ahead with hard work, and more likely to view efforts to address historical discrimination as “special favors.”

After analyzing survey data from the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society, Abramowitz found that, unsurprisingly, racial resentment plays a significant part in determining attitudes about the president:

[R]egardless of party or ideology, whites who scored high on racial resentment had more negative opinions of Obama and were more likely to harbor doubts about whether he was born in the United States than whites who scored low on racial resentment.

In chart form, here are the results on racial resentment and political attitudes:

And here are the results on racial resentment and birtherism:

As Abramowitz is careful to note, partisanship and ideology are incredibly strong predictors of overall evaluations of Obama, but it’s just as important to note the extent to which racial resentment plays a significant part in driving attitudes of Obama among whites.

Relatedly, racial resentment also plays a part in determining white attitudes about health care reform. According to a recent survey from the Greenlining Intitute (which relied on the same data set),”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.”

During the Great Birtherism Incident of two weeks ago, there was a push from some to deemphasize the racial aspects of the conspiracy. But, if these results show anything, it’s that racial attitudes are inexorably linked to large debates in American politics, from Obama’s performance as president, to the desirability of large social programs. Race is key to understanding this country’s political dynamics, regardless of our attempts to pretend otherwise.


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