TRENDS: Racial Resentment and Public Opinion across the Racial Divide

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(4) 767 –784
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919870280
Scholars have long argued that the most profound politi-
cal division between groups in the United States lies
between blacks and whites. Blacks and whites differ in
their voting behavior, as well as their evaluations of the
carceral state, affirmative action policies, and welfare
policies (Gilens 1999; Hurwitz and Peffley 2010; Pasek
et al. 2014; Piston 2010; Rabinowitz et al. 2009; Tesler
2012; Tien et al. 2012; Tuch and Hughes 2011). Perhaps
one of the greatest divisions between these two groups
concerns how to understand interracial inequality.
Historically, the overwhelming majority of black people
blamed structural barriers to equality such as racism and
prejudice (Dawson 1994; Massey and Denton 1993; Orey
2004; Pattillo-McCoy 1999), while a majority of whites
blamed the individual failings of those in the black com-
munity (Anderson 1999; Ogbu 2004; Wilson 1996).
However, contemporary research on blacks’ explanations
for inequality reveals that over time, black people have
increasingly shifted away from attributing blame to struc-
tural barriers to that of individual attributions (Hunt 2007;
Nunnally and Carter 2012; Smith 2014; Tate 2010). We
believe that the growing convergence of attitudes pertain-
ing to inequality among blacks and whites warrants fur-
ther scholarly inquiry of two racial groups that have
historically been analyzed separately.
A recent examination of this convergence focused on
whites’ and blacks’ reactions to the racial resentment bat-
tery (Kam and Burge 2018). Kam and Burge (2018) find
that when black and white survey respondents are asked
to stop and reflect on their answers to the racial resent-
ment battery, blacks and whites on the high and low end
of the scale provide similar thematic justifications for
their responses. That is, blacks and whites on the high
end of the scale are more likely to attribute blame of
blacks’ unequal status to individual failings, and blacks
and whites on the low end of the scale blame structural
features like racism and discrimination. Kam and Burge’s
(2018) findings lay the groundwork for this paper; we
take the next logical step by theorizing and analyzing the
role that racial resentment plays in the policy opinions of
whites and blacks.
Although the research on racial resentment has been
meticulously developed, tested, and analyzed with white
Americans in mind, survey respondents across both racial
groups have been administered this battery of items in the
American National Election Study since 1986. We assess
the correlation between racial resentment and other
important aspects of racial attitudes: feelings toward
blacks and whites, stereotypes of blacks and whites, and
870280PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919870280Political Research QuarterlyKam and Burge
1Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA
2Villanova University, Villanova, USA
Corresponding Author:
Camille D. Burge, Department of Political Science, Villanova
University, 800 E Lancaster Ave., Villanova, PA 19085, USA.
TRENDS: Racial Resentment and Public
Opinion across the Racial Divide
Cindy D. Kam1, and Camille D. Burge2
Research on racial resentment has been meticulously developed, tested, and analyzed with white Americans in mind—
yet black Americans have also responded to this battery for the past three decades. To date, little to nothing is known
about the implications of responses to the racial resentment battery among black Americans. A burgeoning literature
on blacks’ intragroup attitudes suggests that over time, black Americans have increasingly attributed racial inequality
to individual failings as opposed to structural forces. As such, unpacking blacks’ responses to the canonical racial
resentment battery may provide further insight into the micro-foundations of black public opinion. Using survey data
from 1986 to 2016, we engage in a systematic quantitative examination of the role of racial resentment in predicting
black and white Americans’ opinions on racial policies, “race-coded” policies, and nonracialized policies. Along the
way, we highlight the existence of wide heterogeneity among black respondents and call for further investigation that
identifies similarities and differences in the foundations of white and black public opinion.
race, prejudice, racial resentment, public opinion
768 Political Research Quarterly 72(4)
linked fate. Next, we engage in a systematic quantitative
examination of the micro-foundations of opinion among
black and white Americans on racial policies, “race-
coded” policies, and nonracialized policies. In so doing,
we examine the possibility that racial resentment can
serve as a predictor of racial policy opinion and race-
coded policy opinions not only among white Americans
but also among black Americans. No prior analysis has
examined white and black responses to the racial resent-
ment battery over a thirty-year period. We move the pub-
lic opinion and racial resentment literature forward by
finding that the racial resentment battery can be profit-
ably incorporated into the portfolio of “basic ingredients”
that unpack the racial policy opinions not only of white
Americans but also of black Americans.
Racial Resentment across the Racial
Racial prejudice is age-old, but modern social scientific
approaches to quantifying and measuring racial prejudice
are rooted in the twentieth century. The nature of racial
prejudice itself has shifted within the twentieth century,
from an “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” form of racism
that focused on biological, inherent differences between
blacks and whites, to its more modern variants. These
modern variants combine negative affect toward blacks
with a judgment regarding the failure of blacks to con-
form to “American” values of hard work. Such measures
have appeared under the terms symbolic racism, modern
racism, and racial resentment.
Racial resentment, according to Kinder and Sanders
(1996), refers to the sentiments held by white Americans
toward black Americans. Racial resentment combines
anti-black affect infused with a sense of anger and indig-
nity, undergirded by a belief that black people have failed
to conform to the classic Protestant work ethic: “At its
center are the contentions that Blacks do not try hard
enough to overcome the difficulties they face and that
they take what they have not earned” (Kinder and Sanders
1996, 106). A four-item scale has appeared in each of the
major installments of the American National Election
Studies (ANES) since 1986. In their comprehensive treat-
ment of the subject, Kinder and Sanders (1996) estab-
lished the strong and robust effect of racial resentment on
attitudes toward explicitly racialized policies such as
affirmative action and federal spending on programs to
assist minorities and toward “race-coded” policies such
as welfare and crime. Subsequent work has established
the relationship of racial resentment to electoral decision-
making and candidate evaluation, particularly in the
Obama age (Kam and Kinder 2012; Kinder and Dale-
Riddle 2012; Tesler and Sears 2010).
These robust findings notwithstanding, prominent
scholars have raised questions concerning the underlying
meaning of the battery (e.g., Carmines, Sniderman, and
Easter 2011; Feldman and Huddy 2005; Huddy and
Feldman 2009; Sniderman and Carmines 1997; Sniderman
and Piazza 1993). They contend that the role of prejudice
in policy judgments is minimal and at its core, the policy
judgments of whites are shaped by their principles: fair-
ness, equality, and the appropriate role of government, and
further suggest that the racial resentment battery may be
conflated with these underlying principles. Use of the
racial resentment battery to predict racial policy attitudes,
the argument goes, may be tautological given the battery
itself might be conflated with race-based policy opinions
(Carmines, Sniderman, and Easter 2011). Recent experi-
mental work by DeSante (2013) speaks to both sides of
the debate demonstrating that although racial resentment
correlates with principled ideologies, its relationship is
highly conditioned by racial considerations. The open-
ended analyses of Kam and Burge (2018) also speak to
both sides of the debate by unpacking the meaning under-
lying the varied responses of whites and blacks to the
scale. Recent work demonstrates that both prejudice and
principles are integral components to the racial resentment
Despite these divergent views within the literature on
racial resentment, there is one common thread across
them: nearly all of the public opinion research featuring
racial resentment focuses on white Americans. In this
voluminous line of research, we are struck by the paucity
of studies of how black Americans respond to what has
become the canonical measure in public opinion research
on race.1 This lacuna in the literature could in part be
attributable to political impact: whites have been a major-
ity not only of the U.S. population but also a majority of
the electorate (although this will change in the not-so-far
future). The lacuna could also be attributable to the epis-
temological conventions of the field: that this is simply
how political scientists have approached the study of
public opinion and race. It could also be attributable to
outgroup homogeneity bias: that (mostly white) public
opinion researchers have explored heterogeneity among
whites but largely ignored analyses of blacks (or included
a dummy variable to capture “race”). Finally, it could also
be attributed to data limitations: until recently, the sample
size of black people in nationally representative datasets
has been too limited to sustain rigorous statistical analy-
sis (but, note that political, epistemological, and psycho-
logical forces all can play a role in shaping what research
designs are proposed and funded). Whether the lack of
research on racial resentment among blacks is an inten-
tional oversight attributable to population or political
influence, a feature of the epistemological convention

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