Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.


Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:


“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”


We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.


I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.


What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.

How We View Welfare

In my last post I wrote about the Republican party’s shift in the 1970s to be more focused on race, and to draw a line between white people and black people in terms of identity politics. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that this was done to create a political coalition of white voters across the socioeconomic spectrum and to break apart potential alliances with low income black and white people.  Alexander continues in her book to show how specific policies became racialize and how stereotypes of black people became attached to policy.

Alexander writes, “During this period, conservatives gave lip service to the goal of racial equality but actively resisted desegregation, busing, and civil rights enforcement. They repeatedly raised the issue of welfare, subtly framing it as a contest between hardworking, blue-collar whites and poor blacks who refused to work. The not-so-subtle message to working-class whites was that their tax dollars were going to support special programs for blacks who most certainly did not deserve them.”

Alexander shows that policies which should have been neutral in terms of race and policies which would have helped both poor whites and poor blacks were used against black people. Higher income white people who had an interest in keeping more of their money and not directing their money toward low-income black and white people were able to frame welfare as a negative and stigmatize it as a program for lazy black people and not as a program for individuals who have been exploited, who have had bad luck, or for people who lacked the opportunities of more affluent individuals. I have written in the past about the randomness of material and fiscal wealth and success, but the racialized framework from the 1970s is so powerful because it played into beliefs that our actions drive our success and that only lazy (minority) individuals will need assistance. The rhetoric developed by the republican party ultimately worked to drive a wedge between white people and black people all while claiming to be race neutral.

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.

Post Racial

The conclusion of Michael Tesler and David Sears’ book Obama’s Race, sums up the authors thoughts about President Obama’s election after their extensive review of voting patterns in the 2008 election and social surveys through the campaign and President Obama’s first year in office. As a candidate, Obama did not need to emphasize race for race to be an important factor. Neither John McCain nor Obama focused their campaign on race, but it was nevertheless an important element in the election. Candidate Obama wanted to transcend race in his campaign, but Tesler and Sears find that he was not able to do so successfully. To close out their book, the authors write,


“Regardless of what the future holds, we can say with a great deal of confidence that the election of our first black president was not a post-racial moment. Rather, racial attitudes were heavily implicated in every aspect of Barack Obama’s quest for the White House. From Americans’ earliest evaluations of Candidate Obama to their primary voting to their general election vote choice, Obama was heavily judged in terms of his racial background. Racial attitudes were strongly associated with both support for and opposition to Obama throughout the election year. With these positive and negative effects largely canceling themselves out in Obama’s aggregate vote tallies, many mistakenly took his victory as a sign that race no longer mattered in American politics. Behind such success in the primaries and general election, however, lay perhaps the most racialized presidential voting patterns in American history.”


From the very beginning of his time in office, President Obama was viewed differently by people who were more likely to sympathize with racial minorities and people who were more likely to harbor resentment toward racial minorities. A Republican and Democrat polarization became worse at the national level as President Obama’s race made people think first about identity and second about traditional conservative or liberal ideology.


I don’t believe that the ideas wrapped up in conservatism or liberalism truly mean anything in the post 2008 election world. Libertarians may favor a very limited government based purely on the written role of government in the Constitution, but the average conservative seems to be more in tune with racial identity within our two party system than they are in tune with ideas of limited government and any specific policy goal. Similarly, the term Liberal seems to stand in for multicultural as opposed to representing ideas of big or progressive government. What both parties now seem to be split on is race, but the arguments and debates between the two parties exist in the shadow of ideology, never acknowledging racial motives and instead arguing about tax structure and healthcare despite the fact that very few truly understand the alternatives, choices, and impacts of the policies adopted by either side. What we do understand, are racial and identity signals that are hidden within our debates and policy arguments.


I do not know how we get both sides to recognize that their politics are based less on ideology and more on identity. I do not know what happens to the political system when we acknowledge that identity is the driving factor over ideology or policy. What I do know is that the Democrat party has adopted a view of multiculturalism which is able to talk about race and the challenges faced by racial minorities, while the Republican party has adopted a view that society has become equal in terms of race and that we are ready for a period of post-racialism if only the Democrats could move on. Sears and Tesler demonstrate that we never achieved a post-racial America, and  the failure of the Republican party, and white people in general, to acknowledge their racial biases has created a hurricane of racial tension in this country. Black people today are not allowed to call out the racialized environment since our politics are so evenly split between the Democrats who accept the danger of racial attitudes in our country today and the Republicans who claim that racial discrimination is no longer a barrier. If we cannot stand on equal ground between our two parties in terms of how we understand the influence of race and identity in our politics, we will constantly be shouting over each other’s heads and never addressing the question that matters most: Who is American and what does it mean to be American and be diverse?

Increasing Racial Polarization

In their book Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which President Obama split people along the lines of racial sentiment and attitude. The way that people saw race shaped the way that people viewed Candidate and President Obama. Research analyzing public opinion polls and voting behavior helps us understand how people truly reacted to a black presidential candidate and ultimately a black president. Tesler and Sears were able to use that analysis to see how public opinion changed from before the 2008 election throughout the campaign to 2010, two years into President Obama’s first term. The results of their study in 2010 pointed toward a rocky future, and their analysis was proven correct over the course of President Obama’s two terms and into the early presidency of Donald Trump.


Tesler and Sears write, “As we mentioned … our results from the campaign on the spillover of racialization are likely to have the most important implications for American politics in the age of Obama. If the racialized evaluations associated with President Obama spill over to people and policies strongly situated in opposition or harmony with him, as they had during the campaign, then partisan politics might become increasingly polarized by race and racial attitudes in the years ahead.”


Their prediction was absolutely correct as Candidate Trump turned identity and race into his signature issue, focusing intently on who is and is not a full American, and garnering support mostly among white voters.


The authors continue, “The natural extension of our discussion of Obama-induced racialization … is that racial attitudes should have developed a greater impact on opinions about health care after the 2008 election because of its strong association with President Obama.” This idea was fully born out in 2016 as President Trump attacked President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which bears the former President’s name in popular discussion as Obama Care.


What is challenging for us today, is the lack of acceptance and understanding that race and racial attitudes shape so much of our understandings and interactions with the world around us. On a recent episode of the podcast Scene on Radio, John Biewen shares an interesting statistic. Many white people today feel that discrimination against white people is a serious problem, and many people who voted for President Trump believe that discrimination against white people is a larger problem than discrimination against black people and minorities. When we fail to understand how our attitudes have been polarized by race and how many people used President Obama’s race to polarize our ideas and opinions, we lead ourselves toward a place where people are disrespected and dismissed based on the color of their skin. We begin approaching politics within a framework where our true agenda (advancement of our racial group) is hidden behind surface level ideology that does not hold up when scrutinized. We argue about tax rates and health insurance coverage on the surface, but our true argument is about which identity group should receive greater support from the collective use of society’s resources and which group should not receive such support.

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.

The Growth of Political Polarization

I find it incredibly challenging to talk to people who push back against ideas that I have that advocate for better treatment of minorities and women. I have not given much thought to white men whose social status may be diminished relative to women and minorities, but I have spent some time focused on race in terms of how we have historically treated black people in our country, and I am also acutely aware of how our society seems to favor men in business and political leadership over women. When I do hear someone push back against my views and advocate for mens rights or say that all lives matter, I am not able to speak with them as constructively as I would like. In situations where I do meet individuals with such views, I find that my natural reaction and inclination is to become entrenched, digging my feet in the sand and drawing a line that places me on the correct side of morality. What I effectively do however, is begin to polarize myself away from the other person.


David Sears and Michael Tesler identify the problem that I face in their book Obama’s Race. In their book they describe the ways in which Obama’s race could further polarize our nation, and their prediction from 2010 has largely shown to be an accurate prediction of the direction of our politics.


“Our results from the campaign could have profound implications for American partisan politics in the age of Obama. The most important political repercussion is that political decision making could become increasingly organized by racial attitudes in the years ahead. A number of findings suggest that this might occur. First, the two sides of radicalization are inherently polarizing. If racial liberals are more supportive of President Obama than they would be of an ideologically similar white Democratic president, and racial conservatives are more opposed to him than they would be absent his race, then public opinion should naturally be more divided by racial attitudes than ever.”


President Obama grew in popularity following a 2004 speech in which he claimed there was not a blue America and a red America, but just America, and he set out to unite the counry rather than build a coalition of one group against another. Unfortunately, his race polarized the country further than his politics alone. People like me, who argued that our country has not done enough to help advance people of color ran up against people who felt that our country was doing too much to help minorities get ahead without doing enough to help those who they believed represented true American values. Those who viewed Obama negatively felt that they were not being being rewarded for their efforts were asked to shoulder more of a burden and carry the weight of racial minorities who were given a hand-up that was not offered to white people.


I am worried because I don’t have a great solution at this point. I believe that the statistics regarding arrests of minorities and the statistics regarding median incomes of minorities and modern day segregation within our society are real. I don’t believe that advocating for programs that end up helping mostly minority populations or that make it easier for women to seek justice are programs that hurt white men, even if they diminish the relative social standing of white men. Perhaps what is important to do is make sure that we are honest about the intent of our policies. Rather than present our policies as being designed to help everyone (which I believe is largely true in most cases where policy encourages greater aid to a racial or gender minority) we should be honest and say that we want to specifically help the group that we want to help. At the same time perhaps we could be more honest about the impact of such policies on white people, and perhaps we could offer something that aids them as well.


Coming back to the quote from Tesler and Sears, I think it is important that people like me recognize when our actions further drive polarization. We must be aware of the times when we take a more favorable issue position position or stance toward an individual or group than we normally would take if there had not been some opposition to the position. This means we must be able to look critically at our stances and beliefs, and recognize that there are always going to be flaws and inequities in how we come together as a society to organize and use our resources.


I am still working to figure out how to have the challenging conversations with individuals who directly contradict my views in areas of racial and gender equity. I think the key is recognizing that such views can be polarizing since identity lays at the heart of the issue, and overly zealous support for a particular identity can be just as damaging as extreme opposition.