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What Academic Research Really Says About Race and the Obama Presidency

• August 29, 2012 • 2:16 PM

Whether or not Obama serves another term, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new 10,000-worder for The Atlantic will probably stand as one of the totemic deconstructions of race and the Obama presidency. Coates weaves together various racially charged events and trends, historical and current, in arguing how and why a man with demonstrably nuanced views on race came to scrupulously avoid the issue of race in his public statements as president. There’s much more than that, too; suffice it to say it’s worth reading, if only to keep up with the discussion that has ensued.

But one research paper Coates cites deserves scrutiny, because it might actually complicate his case. Half-way through the article, he brings up Michael Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University, who took a close look at public opinion in a 2010 paper to analyze the impact of race on views towards health-care reform. Tesler collected data via panels and interviews with 3,147 registered voters that roughly matched the country’s demographic makeup; he also looked at the oft-cited American National Election Study, which has regularly measured respondents’ level of racial resentment and support for government health insurance since 1988. Different respondents were presented specific health care reform policies, framed as Clinton proposals, Obama proposals, or un-framed, neutral proposals. Coates quotes Tesler summarizing how white Americans’ views on reform could be predicted by their level of ‘racial resentment’:

“Racial attitudes had a significantly greater impact on health care opinions when framed as part of President Obama’s plan than they had when the exact same policies were attributed to President Clinton’s 1993 health care initiative.”

Coates calls the findings “bracing”—empirical evidence for contemporary, subtle forms of racial animus operating like “quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet”. He cites a host of similar research into the white public’s views on race, as well as instances of undeniable race-baiting rhetoric from Republican leadership in recent years. He concludes:

“What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness.”

But do Tesler’s findings entirely support this thesis? As he states in the paper: “There is simply no way of knowing whether the growing polarization of public opinion by racial attitudes…was caused by the president’s race or another factor like his party affiliation”. Tesler does show that race increased in importance as Obama became the face of health care reform, but only “relative to nonracial considerations”. That is, race was not the most important consideration for respondents, just likely a more important factor than if absent a black president. Also, the level of ‘importance’ of race for respondents didn’t necessarily correspond with diminished support for Obama’s policies, except among a small fraction of respondents who reported the highest levels of resentment.  Overall, Coates’ brief presentation of Tesler’s research implies that race plays a more central, negative role in white Americans’ lack of support for Obama’s policies than what the research supports. More striking in Tesler’s data, white Americans seemed to override their own morally indefensible resentment in gauging the merit of Obama’s policies.

As Seth Ackerman pointed out in Jacobin last year, responding to Tesler’s research (and a body of similar research):

The effects of respondent’s party and ideology, after controlling for racial resentment, were each one-and-a-half-times as large as the effect of racial resentment…[and] two-and-a-half times as large as the effects of anti-black stereotypes and judgments….

Tesler’s study also looked at the correlation between racial resentment and the stimulus.  Compared to the neutral frame, or a frame that presented the policy as authored by congressional Democrats, Ackerman notes:

The overall level of white support for stimulus was higher when Obama was cited as the policy’s author…[Racial resentment], triggered by the mention of Obama’s name, actually had the net effect of increasing support for his stimulus policy.”

Again, he’s referring to the numbers seen among those that reported any racial resentment (See Figure 3 in the paper).

So why split hairs with Tesler’s research like this?  Because the Left systematically gloms to studies like Tesler’s to impugn the Right’s racial motives.  It’s a major pillar of their argument against modern conservatism. But, as Ackerman argues, this might be a sign of weakness: critiques of racial motives are just easier to construct and more convincing than anything the Left has been able to muster against the Right’s more significant, consistent embrace of unmitigated frontier capitalism. Tesler’s study more readily supports the idea that the Right’s brand of economic individualism, more than their racial politics, has driven their electorally successful messaging since Reagan.

I don’t want to give the impression that Coates’ whole argument falls apart because one section of his article analyzes research in a mildly reductive way. But Ackerman offers an important alternative interpretation to the growing body of work on racial resentment produced by social scientists in recent decades.  Many on the left tend to ignore or avoid the many constraints and countervailing evidence found in studies like Tesler’s, perhaps to the long-term detriment of their cause.

Michael Fitzgerald
Michael Fitzgerald is an associate editor at Pacific Standard. He has previously worked at The New Republic and Oxford American Magazine.

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