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October 26, 2013 8:24 AM It’s (still) the racism, stupid!: political science weighs in on racial resentment and the government shutdown

By Kathleen Geier

Last time I blogged here, I wrote about the frankly racist nature of the G.O.P.’s support of the government shutdown and its opposition to the ACA. And, as illustrated by the story Ed noted yesterday, some conservatives obviously can’t seem to stop themselves from regularly making grossly offensive racist comments in public — even when they have to know it will discredit both them and the party they represent.

Many people believe that racial animus was one of the strongest factors driving the shutdown; but can the extent to which racial resentments were a factor be measured? One of the political scientists over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage did just that.

Michael Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University, analyzed two big surveys (the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project) that, together, polled over 100,000 respondents. He used the resulting data to measure the average level of racial resentment in each Congressional district. Racial resentment, he says, is a scholarly concept which

measures how much individuals think racial inequality is due to the inner failings of African Americans. A sample question asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with this statement: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites?”

You can see all four questions that make up the “racial resentment” indicator here.

Using a logistic regression, Tesler looked at the relationship between the probability of a Republican member’s voting “no” to end the shutdown and the level of racial resentment in that member’s district. Guess what? He found that “Republican members from districts scoring high on racial resentment were considerably more likely to vote against H.R. 2275 than other Republicans.”

The results hold up even when other factors, such as the “ideological orientation, religiosity, and minority population” of the district, or the members’ individual ideologies, were taken into account. Tesler also notes that, for example, Republican votes to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which passed earlier this year with a minority of Republican votes, were not associated with racial resentment.

Tesler concludes that:

It appears, then, that the relationship between district-level racial resentment and the shutdown vote was not merely politics as usual.

That, actually, is where I disagree with him. Since when has a body politic deeply divided by racial resentments not been “politics as usual” in America? We did, after all, have one of the deadliest wars in our history over our nation’s founding racial caste system. And even after that conflict, though the most noxious institution that was part of that caste system was eliminated, the rest of it remained intact, to the extent that people of color were practically written out of many New Deal programs in the first half of the twentieth century. Racial resentment at the idea of some undeserving, racialized other benefiting from social welfare programs has been one of the major barriers to creating social democracy in America.

There is no question that the Republicans — increasingly white, male, and old — are full of seething racialized resentments, and nothing has brought that out like: a) the nation electing its first African-American president who then b) proceeded to enact a major new social welfare program that will bring affordable health care to many people who are not white.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid, when it comes to taxes, government spending, and social welfare programs, for many people in this country, it is still about race. And when a Republican member of Congress tells a president that he “can’t stand to look at him” — how can a level of disrespect that deep be interpreted as anything other than not-exactly-subtle racism?

The Republicans despised Bill Clinton, too, but none of them told him to his face that they couldn’t stand looking at him — they at least granted him that respect. Presidents like Richard Nixon trashed the Constitution and disgraced the entire country and was treated with far more courtesy by the members of Congress he betrayed.

Yes, as is so often the case in American history, it really is the racism, stupid!

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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