The Problem with Trying to Measure ‘Racial Resentment’

A demonstrator carries an “End Racism Now” sign during a demonstrate against police brutality in Baltimore, Md., May 2, 2015. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Flawed academic assessments of racial prejudice are a diversion from real obstacles facing black Americans.

Overt racist behaviors have declined dramatically — the FBI anti-black hate-crime rate halved in the past 15 years, for instance — and yet racial disparities remain sizable. In response, particularly given President Trump’s rhetoric, many liberals have come to believe that white supremacy is sustained through covert prejudices, most prominently in the form of “racial resentment.”

Writing in the New York Times recently, Thomas Edsall highlighted this perspective in a discussion of a forthcoming book by Duke professor Ashley Jardina. He noted that in her book, she attempted to measure the level of racial resentment by asking survey respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “blacks should work their way up without any special favors.” She found that the results revealed a “new type of racial prejudice — one that is a subtle combination of anti-black affect and the belief that blacks do not adhere to traditional American values associated with the Protestant work ethic.”

The article does mention a study that calls into question Jardina’s results: Harvard researchers Riley Carney and Ryan Enos posed similarly designed questions to respondents, but substituted other ethnic groups for African Americans, including white ethnic groups such as Lithuanians. The results were indistinguishable from those measured when they asked the same questions with blacks as the target group. Strikingly, though, Carney and Enos did not believe that their findings undermined the notion of racial resentment. Instead, they claimed that the racial-resentment scale appears to measure racist attitudes toward any group, rather than African Americans alone. For them, “modern racism reflects four primary beliefs about African Americans: (1) the unwillingness of Blacks to work hard has prevented their own advancement, (2) Blacks demand too much, (3) Blacks no longer face discrimination as they once did, and (4) Blacks have received more than they deserve.” These four attitudes are what the racial-resentment scale measures.

The problems with this should be obvious: If one believes that any values held by blacks are significantly responsible for racial disparities, then it follows that one would believe blacks no longer face discrimination as they once did and, hence, their demands are excessive, and unjustifiable affirmative-action policies enable black Americans to receive more than they deserve. Individuals holding these views would have a high racial-resentment score and be judged to be racists.

The practice of labeling anyone a racist who believes that black behaviors contribute significantly to racial disparities has not gone unchallenged. As the New York Times article quotes Jardina as conceding, but does not pursue, “some scholars are critical of this framework” and “argue that racial resentment entangles conservative principles, like individualism, with racial prejudice.” This was essentially the finding in a study by Stanley Feldman and Leonie Huddy on attitudes towards various affirmative-action policies. They found that among liberals, so-called racial resentment does predict racial prejudice. Among conservatives, however, racial resentment was more closely tied to opposition to all race-based programs, regardless of the race of beneficiaries, and not to racial prejudice.

Many researchers have found evidence that racial disparities are due in significant part to black behavioral deficits. Data indicate that independent of income, black neighborhoods have higher rates of violent crime than white or Latino neighborhoods. In the past, anti-racist stalwarts Kathryn Edin and Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed to irresponsible behaviors that impeded black progress. Statistical studies and the work of Cora Daniels pointed to the frivolous consumption choices made by poor black compared to poor white households.

Many whites who score highly on the racial-resentment scale likely believe that a weak work ethic impedes black progress. Indeed, this viewpoint is not uncommon among black Americans. A 2015 CNN survey asked respondents to quantify the role that various factors play in the economic and social problems black Americans face. As one would expect, a majority of black respondents classified discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities as “major reasons.” Many will be surprised, however, by the other causes they found important. Among black respondents, 61 percent believed that the breakdown of the black family was a major cause, while only 11 percent believed it was no cause at all. Similarly, 42 percent of black respondents believed lack of motivation and willingness to work hard was a major cause, while only 21 percent believed it was no cause at all. In fact, blacks were more likely than whites to say these factors were important.

Finally, increases in racial-resentment scores may reflect an unfortunate reaction to anti-white rhetoric since the Michael Brown killing in 2014. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writings, the activist community broadly embraced the notion that police violence against blacks spearheaded an intensification of white supremacy. Concerning Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Jamelle Bouie recently noted that she had to respond to a base that had absorbed these values:

She spoke early and often about “structural racism” and “implicit bias”; she met with representatives of Black Lives Matter and shared the stage with the “Mothers of the Movement”; she embraced undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and described “police violence” as a force that “terrorizes communities.”

In response, why should anyone be surprised that many white Americans would hold exaggerated views about the degree to which blacks were responsible for their plight or the unfairness of government responses to black grievances? Sure, Trump inflamed the situation, but he was not responsible for the fertile ground that some liberals had created by embracing such anti-white positions.

Rather than debating whether negative attitudes about the work ethics of young black men justify labeling someone a racist, we should spend more time trying to combat their joblessness. Despite a robust 28 percent increase in employment of young black men since 2010, in 2017, 19 percent of those 16 to 24 years old were neither in school nor at work, compared with 14 and 10 percent of comparably aged Latino and white men, respectively. A 2018 study found that these youths are often disconnected from close family as well. Disconnected young people are about two-and-a-half times as likely to be living with family other than their parents, about twice as likely to be living with a roommate, and eight times as likely to be living alone than their more-connected peers.

The more disconnected these youth become, the farther they distance themselves from the paid labor market and the more likely they are to engage in illegal activities. A 2016 research paper by criminologists Gary Kleck and Dylan Jackson examined whether the jobless were more likely to engage in serious property crime. They found that the unemployed who were looking for work and those who were jobless because of acceptable reasons, such as schooling or family caregiving responsibilities, were no more likely to engage in criminal behavior than the general population. By contrast, those who were jobless and had no legitimate reason for not seeking employment were four times more likely to engage in property crime.

The three pillars of liberal employment policies — increased less-skilled immigration, a higher minimum wage, and free tuition at public colleges — will do nothing to resolve these problems. Nor do racial-resentment scales help solve the predicament disconnected young men face. Instead, we should seek policies, including short-term occupational and work-readiness programs, that could help move these men forward.


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