Race Talk and the Government Shut Down

Since last night I have been writing and re-writing this blog about race and the fiscal crisis.  My link to the New York Times page keeps changing – though the content remains essentially the same.  As the Senate moves toward a deal to reopen the government and avert a default, the Times reports that the House balks.

What explains the continued opposition to a deal, despite the seemingly obvious catastrophic consequences of a government default?  Racial anxiety may be playing a role, suggests  Shutdown Power Play:  Stoking Racism, Fear of Culture Change to Push Anti-Government Agenda.  The article describes an analysis by Democracy Corp (a research group led by Stan Greenberg and James Carville) of focus groups with three groups comprised of Evangelicals, Tea Party Republicans, and moderates.  The Democracy Corp concludes that “base supporters” of the Republican Party fear that they are losing to a Democratic Party of big government that is creating programs that “mainly benefit minorities.  Race remains very much alive in the Republican Party.”

So here we are again.  Encouraging mistaken beliefs that only a particular few benefit from government programs – and perpetuating the continued division of “us” and “them” on racial grounds has long been a political strategy.  Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” is a stereotype that continues to live on in some corners.  Even though welfare, like most government programs, including the Affordable Care Act, stands to benefit large numbers of whites.  Indeed, according to 2011 census figures, 46.3% of all uninsured people are non-Hispanic white while 16% are black.

Why has the blog taken so long?  Because the counter-strategy is challenging.

The instinctive response is to call out those distorting the facts as racist.  This tactic has the benefit of moral clarity, and is emotionally satisfying. But calling out those who oppose the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as “racist” will not move people in the political middle. This group is likely to consider someone “racist” only if they publicly disclose old-school-George-Wallace-like animus toward people of color.  The political debate about the role of government in people’s lives—particularly the less fortunate—is much murkier territory, filled with subterranean, unspoken dynamics and assumptions. It does not resemble the image of ardent segregationists proudly flaunting their bigotry.

But simply ignoring the role race is still playing and pretending that we are all “color-blind” is also inadequate.  Social science research has shown that most people carry a set of stereotypical assumptions about race – and that these stereotypes are most  likely to influence decision making when race is right below the surface but not expressly mentioned.  A set of juror studies by Sam Sommers and Phoebe Ellsworth provides powerful evidence of this phenomenon (for a short description of these studies, see this recent piece by Sommers).

The juror studies suggest that when mock jurors confront inter-racial incidents in which racially charged language is used, white jurors were no more likely to convict a black than a white defendant.  When an incident involved a white victim and a black defendant but was otherwise not racially charged, white jurors were more likely to convict a black defendant than a white defendant.  Why?  Because only in the incident in which racial language was used were white jurors conscious that race may come into play — which triggered them to work to be fair.  Donald Bucolo and Ellen Cohn in their study, Playing the race card: Making race salient in defense opening and closing statements, found similar effects in inter-racial trials:  when defense attorneys explicitly mention race, white juror bias toward black defendants is reduced.

The findings in the juror studies are heartening – they provide an empirical foundation for the idea that most white people want to be racially egalitarian.  And they suggest a way forward in policy discussions even if they do not provide play-by-play instructions.  The goal, as john powell aptly states, is to allow people to maintain a self-concept as egalitarian while drawing attention to behaviors that are inconsistent with those values.

I have found listeners of all races to be extremely receptive to this social science in talks at public libraries as well as law schools.   White listeners express relief that they are not being accused of racism –  and once this anxiety is alleviated, the defensiveness melts away.  Listeners of all races seem very interested in the facts about who benefits from government programs and how race operates in the unconscious.

This material is harder to translate into a sound-bite.  But it seems to be the best way forward to an honest conversation about race.

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4 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Rachel, can you say more about the evidence that opposition to the implementation of the ACA is racist? As far as I can tell, the only evidence is a short paragraph in a 30-page report from a Democratic polling firm that summarizes the pollsters’ assessment from a focus group they assembled. Is there more evidence than that, and if so, what is it?

  2. AGR says:

    It is critically important for the media– print and broadcast– to leave off the habit of using blacks as the almost inevitable examples of “the poor” in the United States. It leads to the distortions you mentioned, and most assuredly accounts for some whites’ hostility toward social programs. Why would we think that people who fought (fight) hard against black voting, set up segregation, and fought hard to maintain it not so long ago, would support programs they think are designed mainly to help those whom they despise? A visitor from another planet could be forgiven for thinking that poor whites lived only in Appalachia.

  3. Rachel Godsil says:


    I am not suggesting that opposition to the ACA is “racist.” In fact, I tried very much to say that such a claim would be deeply problematic. I referred to the article not to agree that anyone who opposes implementation of the ACA is “racist” but rather because of the inference that those who oppose the ACA for a host of reasons often have the mistaken belief that the ACA is as AGR states, yet another program for “other people” which is often understood racially. There is quite a bit of research data to support the view that the health care debate that occurred under President Obama included many more references to race than under Clinton. Michael Tessler from Brown has done some interesting work directly on point, finding that white conservatives’ attitudes toward health care reform is significantly higher when Obama is the advocate (while white liberals and many African Americans are more supportive). And Nancy Folbre, an economist at U.Mass, Amherst, wrote a short blog entitled The Color of Affordable Care in the NYT recently that includes a range of cites to research on the general link between race and opposition to government policy.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Rachel, if I understand your post correctly, your argument is that those who oppose the implementation of the ACA aren’t “segregationists proudly flaunting their bigotry”, but rather have their views because they harbor “stereotypical assumptions about race” that are below the surface but are nonetheless are deeply influencing their views. They are not racist in the proud intentional sense; rather, they are just racist in the less self-aware sense that they treating people differently by race without realizing it. My question is, can you elaborate on the evidence linking opposition to the implementation of the ACA with assumptions of race?