The liberal-leaning Mother Jones website recently published an article under the headline “Racial resentment is down since 2016”. The article, written by Kevin Drum, argued essentially that white Republicans were ‘triggered’ by the sight of a black man, Barack Obama, in the White House which caused racial resentment to rise.
This contributed to the surprise win of the orange man in 2016 with those very same triggered white Republicans now no longer triggered and racial resentment falling back to the levels last seen before Obama’s first and historic victory.
This is in fact, a load of cobblers, reliant on a selective and misunderstood use of the data in question, which verges on political smearing.
Such writing only fuels political division but also obscures a much more interesting shift in political attitudes towards race which deserves attention.
The basis for Drum’s short article is data from the American biannual General Social Survey (GSS). He writes:
“…there’s a question on the biannual General Social Survey that I’ve long thought was one of the best indicators of racist attitudes: “Are racial differences due to lack of will?” This, I think, is a fairly nonthreatening way to ask about the widespread belief among some whites that blacks (and other minority groups) should quit complaining and just work harder.”
Drum’s analysis shows that the share of white republicans who felt the “biggest problem among blacks was lack of willpower” was “pretty steady” at around 50 per cent, rising in 2010 to just over 60 per cent. He writes:
“The mere fact of having a black man in the White House was enough to trigger feelings of racial resentment.”
Throughout the rest of Obama’s tenure, the share “faded out a bit” but was “still five points higher than it had been before Obama was elected”.
This racial resentment contributed to Trump’s win according to Drum. Once Obama was out of the way, this dropped by 11 percentage points and is “now precisely where it would be if it had followed the pre-Obama trendline for another ten years”.
This is muted good news for liberals, we are told, in that “Trump’s increasingly vitriolic racism is probably having less of an effect than we fear” since there is less racial resentment than when he was elected in 2016.
I have downloaded the data used and reproduced the graph presented in the Mother Jones article. (In fact, the data are specifically referring to non-black republicans but the majority in the GSS sample will be white.)
Figure 1. The percentage of non-black republicans who say racial differences are due to a lack of will (Mother Jones version)
Drum states in his article that:
“The responses jump around from year to year, so I’ve chosen just a few key dates in the chart below to make the trend clearer…”
Graphing the full data reveals a richer picture, whereby the apparent lurch in 2010 can easily be construed as just the continuation of a gradual rise that had been going on since 1998 which declined afterwards.
Figure 2. The percentage of non-black republicans who say racial differences are due to a lack of will (my version)
I have drawn a couple of regression lines onto the graph in order to make this point. Whether or not this is a real rise and fall between 1998 and 2018 or just a matter of random fluctuations – measurement error – I leave to you to decide by considering the full range of the available data.
The key point is to show how a different picture can emerge once you consider all the omitted data points – the rise in 2010 no longer appears so exceptional. It just so happens that you have an unusual drop in 2008 and an unusual rise in 2010.
Also, when you dig into the data then you see that this rise is most stark among moderate republicans rather than strong republicans which is not what you might reasonably expect. This lends weight to the argument that this is just a blip in the data.
(It is very sad that the GSS website links to Drum’s article – it is obviously partisan.)
The idea that believing that racial differences are due to a lack of will is the same as racial resentment or racism is also something that should be challenged.
It is possible that someone with racist views might sneeringly attribute lack of economic success for some groups to laziness or fecklessness. However, there are also perfectly valid reasons why differences in volition might account for observed differences in economic and social outcomes between groups, at aggregate level.
After all, American Jews and Asians enjoy the best economic returns despite the prejudice and exclusion they have endured. Moreover, as Thomas Sowell has pointed, black Americans who trace their roots back to the West Indies tend to do much better than black Americans who do not; this being despite having similar physical appearances and backgrounds on all other measures, and thus being similarly subjected to racism. What matters is that black Americans of West Indian ancestry had much more of what Max Weber termed the ‘Protestant ethic’ that lent itself towards economic success.
That will, stemming from cultural differences, is a perfectly legitimate explanation for group differences is lent further weight by the fact that black Americans are increasingly of that opinion themselves.
The GSS shows that in 1985, 31.3 per cent of black Americans agreed that racial differences are due to a lack of will, rising to 39.4 per cent in 2018. Strikingly, the share of blacks has surpassed that of whites, of whom 34.3 per cent agreed (statistically significant at the 5% level). See how the share of whites has roughly halved since 1985.
Figure 3. The percentage of Americans who say racial differences are due to a lack of will
At the same time as there has been a convergence by race, there has been a stark divergence in terms of class.
As seen in the graph below, in 1985 it was the case that those who described themselves as lower class, were the least likely to agree that racial differences were due to a lack of will – 46.7 per cent compared to 53.8 per cent of the upper class.
In 2018, the share of lower-class individuals has hardly budged at 47.8 per cent but now this group is the most likely to endorse the view in question. This is because there has been pronounced drops for all other groups. The share of the upper class has dropped to 23.5 per cent; a near-halving while the difference between lower and upper has gone from a net -7.1 to 24.3 percentage points.
(Note I have presented just two data points in order to make the picture more clear – do check out the original data to see if I am being misleading or not!)
Figure 4. The percentage of Americans who say racial differences are due to a lack of will
Whether or not racial differences are down to will is almost besides the point. What matters is that the gap between top and bottom is growing; the elites have changed their tune and at the same time have become much more hectoring and vocal. Those at the bottom are no more deplorable than they ever were, its just they’ve not kept up pace and increasingly look on in bafflement at the new creed they are expected to hold to. This is ample ground for politicians like Trump to exploit.
Mother Jones is a website that caters for a specific political demographic. It looks to inform those on the political left. If this article is representative, then what is missing is the realisation that democracy is about accommodation with, and not outright defeat of your opponents. Republicans and Trumpets aren’t going to go away; they need to be reconciled to the woke as well as Democrats in general, and vice-versa.
Telling your side that the other side are effectively monsters is not going to make this any easier. By presenting a simple story of finger-pointing, Mother Jones is just making a way forward more difficult while eschewing the chance to tell the story of what is really going on in America.
If there is any way out of the political mess that America is in, it has to be grounded in a truthful understanding of the kinds of shifts in demographics and political attitudes that it is experiencing.