Creating Racial Resentment

Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow argues that racial caste systems have been maintained in the United States by stoking up racial attitudes to create a racial hierarchy that distracts us from economic hierarchies. She suggests that white people who have benefitted from racial caste systems in our country are less likely to take action to reverse the situation because of the social benefits of not being black or brown and not living in our country’s lowest social class. She focuses on how political support for African American’s in our country has been diminished to prevent low socioeconomic status (SES) black and white people from joining together and creating a coalition.

Early in her book she writes, “Time and again the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.”

I have come across this theory in other books, podcasts, and mediums and I believe that it is accurate. We support policies in this country that appear to be race neutral at face value,  but have disparate impacts on African American and Latino populations in the Untied States. Policies that have been suggested to reduce these disparate impacts will often times improve the SES of not just black and brown people, but of low SES white people as well. However, these measures often don’t find much political support from white members of groups that would benefit from them. Alexander argues that this is a reflection of the fact that white people will lose status relative to black people if we achieve more racial parity, and to prevent this loss of status white people will vote against legislation and will not support policies that reduce inequality and improve their economic outlook.

The main reason I think Alexander’s claim is an accurate description of our politics is because I see identity, as opposed to economics or ideology, as the main driver of political behaviors. During his campaign and throughout his time in office President Trump capitalized on his ability to represent a certain American identity that is distinctly non-black or brown. He does not have any consistent ideologies or economic policy preferences,  but he does express a consistent white identity and has enjoyed overwhelming support from white demographics across the board including low SES white groups as well as higher SES white groups. Low SES white people would have likely seen greater benefits from a candidate who expressed more equitable political and economic ideologies, but such policies would not have appealed to their identity and would have diminished the small but real status advantage that white people have over black people at all SES levels in America.

I think my position is supported and can be demonstrated by the reality that most American’s don’t have consistent and intelligible policy ideologies, even those who are well informed. By policy ideologies I do not mean liberal or conservative, but rather policy ideologies formed by specific policy evaluations. Few people truly understand what any given policy does and fewer understand the research and data behind a policy and the specifics of a given policy’s implementation plan. What we do understand, are the signals provided when leaders and officials discuss policy. When looking at such policy discussions abandoning the pretense that we are actually discussing policy specifics, one can see that we are more often signaling to each other what groups and what identities should support a policy. We are voting based on identity, but telling ourselves that we are voting based on ideology. Political game theory and identity are better predictors at this point of human voting preference and behavior than self reported ideology or what we have come to describe as liberal and conservative.

Creating Our Own Realities

“An August 2009 poll by The Economist/YouGov, for example, revealed that 37 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans thought Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites. That is a three-fold increase in from responses to similarly worded questions in October 2008 by both CBS/New York Times and NBC/The Wall Street Journal.”

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which President Obama lead to greater polarization in our country simply by being black and being perceived as helping black people more than white people. The idea I shared yesterday is backed up by more research done my Michael Tesler and David Sears in their book Obama’s Race. The quote above shows how views of many white people and many individuals within the Republican party in particular, shifted over the first year of President Obama’s first term. The authors continue to write,

“These results seem to be more consistent with Moskowitz and Stoh’s (1994) finding that many whites effectively “alter reality” in order to rendered a black candidate’s message consistent with their prior expectations and racial beliefs than with the unbiased information processing in Hinjal’s model. Despite not broaching any race-specific policies during his first year in office, the majority of Republicans thought Obama favored African American’s.”

Many American’s allowed biases to shape their opinion of President Obama and his actions. I believe this was spurred on by conservative media and a republican party that made great use of identity politics during President Obama’s time in office. Policy truly did not matter, and ideology (liberal or conservative) did not actually matter in the opinions that people formed. What mattered is who President Obama represented. As a black man with a multicultural background, having grown up and spent a lot of time outside the United States, President Obama did not embody a tradition of white identity. This allowed latent biases about identity, race, and Americanism to shape people’s perception of who President Obama was, what he stood for, and what direction people felt the nation was headed.

Last year I did a lot of research about medical marijuana and opioids and one of the interesting things that I found, which should not have been as surprising as I found it, is that people do not judge policy based on a cost benefit analysis or in terms of how many lives a policy will improve. Instead, as Gollust, Lantz and Ubel write, “Public policy opinions are shaped by people’s attitudes toward the targets of policies, particularly whether the targets are perceived to be deserving of help.” President Obama was not perceived as being a mainstream American, and his identity as a black man meant that his policies and opinions were understood to be representative of only black people’s interests. As a result, white people, particularly within the Republican party which overtly used identity politics to drum up support, began to interpret his policies as helping only black people and minorities, who were seen as less deserving of help. Identity politics and racial predispositions were brought to the front of people’s perceptions of the Federal Government, and President Obama was not judged by his policies or political actions, but by his lack of whiteness and perceived status as an outsider.

Symbolic Racism

How we think about racism in the United States today is a little out of touch with the actual realities and experiences of racial minorities in our country. Much like the Supreme Court’s approach to corruption (show us demonstrable quid pro quo corruption or it didn’t happen) most people in the United States only see racism in overt statements and demonstrable actions. These views however, miss a large part of how racism actually manifests in people’s lives. In their book Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears present a view of symbolic racism that is very descriptive of the current state of racism and general thought toward black people in particular.


“Symbolic racism has been described as a coherent belief system reflecting four specific themes: (1) blacks no longer face much discrimination, (2) their disadvantage mainly reflects their poor work ethic, (3) they are demanding too much too fast, and (4) they have gotten more than they deserve (Henry and Sears 2002; Sears and Henry 2005).”


I kept the quotes in the text above to again demonstrate that the ideas presented by Sears and Tesler are evidence based. Real data was collected and analyzed to reach the findings presented by the authors. This section regarding symbolic racism is not simply the authors subjective thoughts and point of view, it is backed by real research involving real people.


In my life I have seen all four aspects of symbolic racism in action, used as an excuse for racially disparate outcomes of society and used to justify some people’s success dismiss other people’s failures. Each point is easy to disprove on a case by case basis, but when it comes to group identity and how we view black people in a larger setting, we become unable to make our way beyond the arguments presented by symbolic racism.


The events in Charlottesville, VA demonstrate the fact that black people still face discrimination and that many people still harbor beliefs that white people are somehow better than blacks. I have written about housing policies from the 50s and 60s and how they prevented wealth building and limited black people to communities of deep poverty, and how major hurricanes like Katrina have had disparate impacts on black people living in environmentally risky areas. Sears and Tesler in Obama’s Race spend a lot of time reviewing responses to President Obama’s election and demonstrate ways in which white voters changed their views toward racism to more negative views of what was provided to black people and what black people were asking for in terms of equality. The Blue Lives Matter movement which originated as a type of backlash to Black Lives Matter is a modern example of white people pushing back against black people’s demands for greater justice. Each of the situations above build on one of the four views of symbolic racism presented by Tesler and Sears.


The important thing to recognize is not that symbolic racism permeates everything and operates (until the election of President Trump) just under the surface of American Culture. The important  thing to recognize is that symbolic racism does not feel like racism. Instead, it feels like a justification of one’s own achievement and position. Symbolic racism is a excuse for the lifestyle, identity, and adoption of white cultural values with roots dating back to the Protestant founding of our country. We believe that we control our own destiny’s and that our hard work will pay off in the end. Our obstacles and situations do not matter, because we each have the faculties to achieve material and financial success if we only try. The success of many black people, from President Obama’s election to famous sports figures and movie stars, runs alongside symbolic racism as evidence that black people who are failures today (as defined by white wealth goals) are simply not doing enough to make it in this world. In the end, symbolic racism is hard to counter because it is actually not about black people or minorities, it is about the white identify that is shielded and protected from social responsibility for the economic and cultural suppression of others in our nation.

A Common View

Michael Tesler and David Sears pull together a lot of research about race and politics in  their book Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. The authors look at the role that race has played in elections in the history of the United States and compare historical racial attitudes to contemporary politics and observations. When reading the book I came across a short line that stood out to me because it directly voiced concerns and thoughts that I had not fully articulated. “Others, however, viewed racial conservatism as a continuing source of partisan cleavage in the United States, not just between blacks and whites but among whites as well. Mayer (2002) finds a consistent partisan division about race in presidential campaign appeals from 1964 to 2000 (also see Gerstle 2002; O’Reilly 1995; and Schaller 2006) and the Edsalls (1992) articulated the common view among liberals that conservatism of all kinds had become little more than a mask for protecting racial inequality.”

The common view is that modern conservatives are not truly conservative in the sense that they prefer limited government as much as they are conservative in the identity politics that motivate them. This is a broad generalization of about half our country, but it is a view that is very common among Democrats. On the Republican side of the isle in the United States, the key foundations of most ideology hinges on personal responsibility, which creates a lot of gray space in which identity politics can operate. Through a personal responsibility framework, ideas of limited government can exist out of the idea that government should be limited to aid only those who are self reliant and can take personal responsibility for their given situation, be it economic, political (read as power position), familial, or social. These views of the Republican party are not really about a fear of the power of government or philosophical questions of the proper scope of government, but about whether we help those who are deserving and personally responsible. Who we determine is acting personally responsible and how we define who is truly deserving of government aid, however, is unclear in such a system, and identity politics is the simplest way to cut through the unending questions, hypothetical considerations, and nuanced details of life that make it impossible for us to decide who should receive what, when they should receive it, and why they should receive it.

This operation of identity politics in the name of personal responsibility is what those on the Democrat side of the isle have recognized, and this is where the common view of conservatism acting as a stand in for racism originates for many Democrats. Tesler’s book does not simply make observations regarding racial splits and racial attitudes on both sides of the isle, but instead incorporates research and data to support the ideas presented. I chose to include in the quote above the original citations from Tesler, to show that the common view of conservatism acting as little more than racial apologetics is backed by research and that the view is supported by academic studies evaluating people’s identities and general thought patterns.

I do not know how we cut through the apologetic euphemisms with which we communicate our political preferences, but I think it is crucial that we be able to dissect  political arguments to see what is operating in the background. Developing the ability to understand what we are arguing about and debating is crucial if we want to develop good policy and push back against identity politics. We must at the same time recognize that because so much of politics is about identity and race, significant policies aimed at more universal and egalitarian sharing of resources among races will face significant backlash without any backing that can be supported by empirical evidence. Because this backlash is motivated almost purely by obscured racial preference, tensions will be heightened and greater political division can ensue when lines are drawn in the sand.

Can We Change the Thoughts of Others?

A topic that has come up again and again for me since the November 2016 election is the idea that we may not be able to change anyones thinking through discussion, debate, or argument. People become so entrenched in beliefs, and are so reluctant to hearing information that does not support their opinion that we are not able to change anyone’s thought patterns besides our own. Author Ryan Holiday addresses this idea in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, by writing,

“You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.”

I think that Holiday is correct, but I think the real message from his quote above is the idea that you must find common ground with another before you look to change the way they think. People will discredit those who think differently from them and ignore information, even an Everest sized mountain of information indicating their views are incorrect. Speaking with people, listening to their views, understanding why they think a certain way, and offering our perspective are the only ways to honest communicate with others.

I recently listened to episode 174 of the podcast, Decode DC, and they brought on a guest to discuss this exact problem. The show features an interview with Canadian professor Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg who did a study of American’s and beliefs. He offered participants 10 dollars to read 8 statements disagreeing with their views, or 7 dollars to read 8 statements that were in line with their views. About 60 percent of people chose less money and read the statements that reinforced their views. In the episode, Dr. Frimer offers the same advice as Holiday, you must listen to the other person, understand their views, and identify your commonality before you can begin to discuss differences.

I believe we have begun to attach politics to our identify in a new way, and our social media infused world tells us that we should have a voice and opinion for any given situation. With political ideology being incorporated with our identity, political views seem to be coupled with who we are in a dangerous entrenched manner. We feel compelled to be resolute in our identity, and any information that does not align is a threat to our fundamental being. I don’t have fully developed thoughts and ideas on how social media and a pressure to build political ideology have become infused with our ideology, but if my ideas are correct, then the only way to have a civil discussion with someone is to follow the advice of Holiday and Frimer and disarm first ourselves when discussing our differences (especially political) with another person.

Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.


The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.


I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.


It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.


In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.

Mental Complexity

“The term mental complexity refers to our ability to perceive the subtle nuances that separate similar ideas, issues, and events in the world around us—the gray areas that replace the strictly black-and-white understandings of the world that most of us have when we’er young.” Fred Kiel uses this quote to introduce us to the ways in which he believes great leaders think about the world.  For Kiel, a strong leader needs to have well developed moral ideas, an evolving and profound sense of self-awareness, and an ability to think of others as much as they think of themselves.  By introducing the idea of mental complexity Kiel is able to show how thorough our leaders’ though processes should be. They cannot adhere to simplistic guidelines or principles and they cannot apply blanket statements to all facets of life when so much of what happens in our life takes on a new meaning when you shift your perspective.


Kiel quotes psychologist Robert Kegan  and his idea of the self-transforming mind to continue his thoughts on mental complexity, “According to Kegan, the self-transforming mind is continually aware of not knowing everything—of understanding that every worldview is incomplete and that we can never know everything there is to know about anything.” This quote fits with Kiel’s idea of living life in more of a gray are as opposed to living in a dichotomy.  Life in this way can be frustrating and sometimes clouded, but learning to better think through the events and ideas surrounding us will allow us to live more dynamically and open to changes.  Rather than shutting anyone or any event out of our lives we can adjust to situations and people as situations change. Understanding that we all approach the world from our own perspectives and being able to see that we will not all thrive by approaching life from the same angle will give us a better grasp on how to create real progress in not just our own lives, but in the lives of those around us as well. Kiel argues that this is a necessary quality for a strong business leader because so often our leaders are faced with decisions that have many implications and conflicting interests for various groups of people such as shareholders, employees, local communities, and global customers. By thinking dynamically a leader with a strong moral backbone can help navigate these decisions in a way that will add value to the lives of more people than just those in the boardroom.


In the United States I think we do a particularly poor job of approaching the world with the type of mindset that Kiel describes.  In our politics we have seen our two major parties diverge from moderate and centrist ideas to become more extreme and more polarized, and I think a big part of this shift has to do with a lack of developing mental complexity in our world views’.  For some reason our country highly values strong and unwavering view points on everything from abortion, taxes, sports teams, and music. We have begun using our preferences for seemingly minor parts of our lives as cornerstone concepts of our identities, and this has pushed us to a place where we understand the world through dichotomies. Rather than living in the black and white and doing our best to think through and understand various points of view, we have tied ourselves to specific though processes on which we lean on to create our identity.  This is dangerous because it limits our ability to see nuances in thought processes, and it creates winners and losers in areas that cannot simply reduced to good or bad. When a leader, political or in business, ties themselves to a set identity and refuses to think of the world through multiple perspectives, they risk alienating others and preventing growth by failing to truly understand the choices available to them.