The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White racial resentment has been gaining political power for decades

President Trump at a White House event honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

With his crude comment last week about Haiti and Africa, President Trump once again put race front and center in U.S. politics — as he has been doing since he launched his campaign. The past two years have seen an increase in visible white-nationalist activity, including violence in Charlottesville; nationwide protests on a “Day Without Immigrants” to oppose both the Muslim ban and Trump’s pledge to build a wall to stop Mexican immigration; and Trump’s attacks on African American football players for silently protesting police treatment of people of color, to name just a few charged developments.

Astute observers of politics might be tempted to interpret recent developments as indicators of a spike in negative racial attitudes.

But none of this is new. Our research shows that racial attitudes have been increasingly influencing U.S. public opinion for at least 30 years, long before Trump entered the political scene.

Trump’s election is actually a return to normal racial politics. Here’s why.

Let’s be more particular. White racial resentment has remained remarkably stable over time. But that racial resentment has become much more highly correlated with particular political attitudes, behaviors and orientations. More and more, white Americans use their racial attitudes to help them decide their positions on political questions such as whom to vote for or what stance to take on important issues including welfare and health care.

Here’s how we did our research

To conduct this analysis, we used data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys conducted in 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. The ANES is a nationally representative probability sample survey of Americans’ political attitudes conducted every presidential election year. Our analysis focuses on the racial attitudes of whites only, since the questions were designed to elicit white orientations toward blacks.

We measured racial resentment using a standard and validated battery of four specific questions asking respondents about the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve” or “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.”

White racial resentment has stayed roughly the same

The figure below shows the average level of racial resentment among white respondents over time, from 1988 to 2016. A score of 0 reflects the lowest possible level of racial resentment, and a score of 1 reflects the highest.

This graph shows that racial resentment hasn’t fluctuated much over time. White Americans today are, on average, no more racially resentful than they were in 1988. 

But racial resentment now more closely predicts all other political opinions

But that doesn’t necessarily tell us whether racial resentment has become more or less politically powerful or influential. Racial resentment can remain the same — and yet at different times it could be more effectively defused or more potently channeled.

The next figure shows the correlation between racial resentment and several political orientations, attitudes and behaviors, including partisanship, ideological self-identification, voting for the Republican Party candidate, and attitudes about issues such as general government spending or favoring private or publicly subsidized health insurance.

As you can see, every political variable we measured has become more closely correlated with racial resentment over time. For instance, racially resentful whites had a variety of attitudes toward health insurance in 1988. But by 2016, highly racially resentful whites strongly opposed public health insurance while those with little racial resentment strongly supported it. And for every variable except voting for the Republican Party candidate, the correlations between racial resentment and all these political variables have tripled over time.

By 2016, you could much more accurately predict a white voters’ attitudes toward almost everything we measured based on how racially resentful they might be than you could have in 1988. These results suggest that white voters use their attitudes toward race to guide political decisions three times as much today as they did just 30 years ago.

Why did Trump win? More whites — and fewer blacks — actually voted.

Why has racial resentment become so much more politically important?

One apparent reason has been that political elites — politicians, party leaders, the political media and so on — have increasingly indulged in what scholars call “racial priming.” Those are the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that encourage citizens to base their opinions at least in part on racial considerations.

Racial priming can affect voting behavior, as well as attitudes about a variety of issues, including affirmative actioncrime and welfare policy. The quintessential example is the “Willie Horton” ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, which, many observers and scholars have argued, the George H.W. Bush campaign used to increase white voters’ racial anxieties and suggest that Democrat Michael Dukakis was soft on crime.

Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency further strengthened the relationship between racial resentment and political attitudes. Political scientist Michael Tesler has shown that during the Obama presidency, Americans’ opinions about ostensibly nonracial issues such as health care became more closely related to their racial attitudes — as a result of being governed by the first black U.S. president.

Tesler: To many Americans, being patriotic means being white

These dynamics have continued — and been amplified — over the past year, with Trump making racially tinged claims of voter fraud, alleging people were bused in from urban areas; claiming that those urban areas are dangerously violent; and repeatedly deriding peaceful protests by black NFL players during the national anthem.

But our research suggests that while Trump’s racial rhetoric has been unusually explicit, he did not create the connection between white Americans’ racial attitudes and their political opinions. That relationship has been growing for decades.

Adam M. Enders is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

Jamil S. Scott is a PhD candidate in political science at Michigan State University.