Diverse communities are not immune to racial resentment. In fact, they might be more prone, a new study finds

August 5, 2022, 10:03 PM UTC
A white woman wearing a face mask voting behind a booth
A recent study done by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU reveals that diverse communities are more susceptible to restrictive voter laws, and that white voters in those communities tend to be in support of them.
Tetra Images—Getty Images

The funny thing about diversity is that sometimes it makes things worse. A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU illustrates my point.

Patterns in the Introduction and Passage of Restrictive Voting Bills Are Best Explained by Race, published this week, studies the dynamics behind the recent spate of laws designed to make it harder for people of color to vote. It’s not a small issue. In the past two years, there have been nearly 400 restrict­ive measures introduced in legislatures across the U.S., at least one in every state except Vermont. These kinds of measures include limiting voting hours, removing ballot boxes, eliminating absentee voting options, adding new photo identification requirements, and closing polling locations.

But having a Republican majority alone is not enough to get these types of legislation passed, the study finds.

It turns out that white voters in states with lots of communities of color are more likely to want the kinds of laws that make voting harder and that typically target the poor, the elderly, immigrants, Black, and other people of color who are perceived to be more likely to vote Democratic or advocate for themselves.

“We are not seeing these bills introduced and passed everywhere that Republicans have control; rather, they are most prevalent in states where they have control and where there are significant non-white populations,” says researcher Kevin Morris in an email. “Similarly, it is not just that Republican-leaning legislative districts are represented by lawmakers who sponsor these bills.”

This conclusion is drawn, in part, from answers found within a very broad voter survey that seeks to measure something called “racial resentment.” The concept was developed by political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders three decades ago in an attempt to understand what white Americans believe about Black Americans and how that informs their politics.

In this case, the higher the resentment scores, the more likely white voters are to think barriers to voting are a good idea.

It’s a mix of history, opportunity, and fundamental attribution error.

“[Racial resentment] is based on respondents’ answers to questions about how much they attribute socioeconomic disparities between Black and white Americans to slavery and racial discrimination or to a lack of hard work and perseverance by Black Americans,” says Brennan Center’s Theodore R. Johnson, author of When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America. “The more an individual agrees with the general sentiment that Black people’s lack of effort is the primary reason for racial disparities, the higher that individual’s racial resentment score. And study after study has shown that people who voted for Donald Trump had higher levels of racial resentment than those who did not.”

From the Brennan Center study:

  • Representatives from the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states were the most likely to sponsor anti-voter bills.
  • Districts with higher racial resentment were more likely to be represented by lawmakers who sponsored restrictive bills.
  • Predominantly white states were unlikely to introduce or pass restrictive provisions, regardless of which party controlled the legislature.
  • Racially diverse states controlled by Republicans were far more likely to introduce and pass restrictive provisions. 

As you’ve probably guessed, this is not really a get-out-the-vote essay, though we can’t expect a functioning democracy if everyone cannot participate.

But it is a reminder that white resentment, triggered by fear of demographic change, is not new. It’s also an increasingly dangerous part of our lives, linked to the “great replacement theory” fueled racist massacres, like the one at a supermarket in Buffalo (2022), a synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), and a historic Black church in Charleston (2015).

So, while we focus on how white resentment plays out in the public square, it’s also time to ask, again, how growing feelings of resentment may be de-railing inclusion initiatives at work.

Way back in 2017, I spoke with Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard. He had co-conducted research showing that most bias mitigation efforts are doomed, and white resistance was clearly the elephant in the room.  “It always seemed crazy to me that people thought that you could put people in two hours of diversity training and change their behavior,” he told me. “And when you talk to people after they get out of diversity training, often they’re angry and feel like they’re being treated like bigots. It just never seemed to me that that was a likely way to change the world.”

And one group of inclusion professionals I’ve spoken with in the past few months self-report being ignored and exhausted. In response to a poll by Deloitte, they also identified one attitude inside their organization as the chief barrier to their work, or as I like to think about it, the “great replacement” in the org chart: “Advancing certain groups of professionals will mean fewer opportunities for others.”

I’ve got more reporting coming on equity in voting, specifically groundbreaking work the NAACP is doing to “map the movement” for justice. But if feelings of racial resentment persist, what elements of inclusion work are working? Necessary? Not working?

Let me know what you’re seeing, feeling, thinking, or working on; subject line: Resentment. (Trust me, it will get my attention.

Wishing you a fulfilling and meaningful weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

WNBA star Brittney Griner is found guilty by a Russian court. It’s been a heartbreaking development in an already devastating case. In addition to a hefty fine, Griner, who was arrested in a Moscow airport in February with less than a gram of cannabis oil, was sentenced yesterday to nine years in a penal colony for drug possession and smuggling. As she becomes a pawn in a rapidly heating cold war, Griner’s plight is deeply personal to many. “What she’s experiencing isn’t foreign to us,” said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told The 19th, referring to the over-representation and over-policing of Black queer women. “It’s really triggering to see a queer Black person in a cage,” said Imadé Nibokun Borha, the founder of the nonprofit Depressed While Black.“It makes me think about how Black women, Black queer women, how we’re considered disposable in our society.” 
19th News

The National Science Foundation funds an Indigenous Science hub. It’s the largest research award ever granted by the NSF to a tribal college or university. Funded under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the five-year award will allow Haskell Indian Nations University, a Bureau of Indian Education-operated Tribal University in Lawrence, Kansas, to fund an initiative called The Large Scale CoPe: Rising Voices, Changing Coasts: The National Indigenous and Earth Sciences Convergence Hub. “This is an exciting and much-needed opportunity for scientists and Indigenous knowledge keepers to collaborate on how Indigenous people in coastal areas can build resiliency to the dynamic forces resulting from climate change,” says Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.
Indian Country Today

The Oscar goes to a new president. Producer Janet Yang has just been named the next and first-ever Asian American president of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences. Yang, who produced The Joy Luck Club and The People vs. Larry Flynt, was elected by the academy’s 54-member board. She becomes the fourth woman to lead the organization behind the Oscars. She’s also a direct result of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign to diversify the awards landscape. The Queens, N.Y. native joined the academy in 2019.
AP News

A new study confirms that young people aren’t influenced to become transgender because of “social contagion.” The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics, come at a time when transgender youth are increasingly losing their access to affirmative health care, sports, and civil rights. “The hypothesis that transgender and gender diverse youth assigned female at birth identify as transgender due to social contagion does not hold up to scrutiny and should not be used to argue against the provision of gender-affirming medical care for adolescents,” they reported. The “social contagion” theory was published in a 2018 paper and described a phenomenon called “rapid onset gender dysphoria.”
NBC News

On background: The explainers

Structural racism, explained. A good place to start is with the legacy of segregation, which also informs the gaps in outcomes in education, health, wealth, and employment. The Urban Institute has compiled a great list to bookmark and share.

You can’t bootstrap if you’ve been redlined. Redlining, the practice of governments and lenders denying certain communities access to affordable capital based on race or ethnicity, is still very much a problem. It hits your pocketbook. “If your family was denied a mortgage in the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s, then you may not have the family wealth or down payment help to become a homeowner today.” It hits your health—because of it, the air you breathe may be dirtier. Just ask the mostly Latinx residents of Boyle Heights, in Los Angeles. And it’s still happening. A Berkshire Hathaway-owned local lender just agreed to the second-largest “redlining” settlement in DOJ history. History below.

The model minority myth, explained. Michael Kraus and Eunice Eun, both from Yale’s School of Management, argue persuasively that the anti-Asian racism that has been amplified in the last few years was predictable. In a culture that prizes whiteness, progress is the real myth. “Racial equality, even for seemingly high-status model minority groups, is not something that unfolds automatically with the passage of time,” they write. A clear picture of the experience of AAPI at work is often hard to see—a diverse array of people, who are often lumped into one disaggregated block on diversity reports, if mentioned at all. Buck Gee and Denise Peck, two former Silicon Valley executives, examined government-mandated workplace demographic records for the report “The Illusion of Asian Success,” published by Ascend, a non-profit leadership organization for Pan-Asian professionals. They found a population largely stalled at work and less likely to be considered for promotion. More on how to debunk the myth below.
USC Pacific Asia Museum

Parting words

“When I was at Baylor, I wasn't fully happy because I couldn't be all the way out. It feels so good saying it: 'I am a strong, Black lesbian woman. I am a strong, Black, lesbian woman.' Every time I say it, I feel so much better.”

— Brittney Griner

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