The coronavirus pandemic has hit the nation’s black communities disproportionately hard, both medically and financially, as has been widely reported. White House officials and other observers have suggested the blame lies with those in the communities themselves. During the April 10 White House coronavirus briefing, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said black communities “are not helpless” and ought to “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” In an NPR interview, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said African Americans’ high rates of underlying health conditions such as obesity and diabetes contribute to their vulnerability to the coronavirus. Asked if those health disparities stem from systemic racism, Cassidy responded: “That’s rhetoric, and it may be. But as a physician, I’m looking at science.”

Social science research has found that this narrative of black personal responsibility can be linked to “racial resentment,” the idea that black people no longer face much racism and their disadvantages stem from a poor work ethic. We checked to see if that’s how Americans who agree with this narrative are thinking. Here’s what we found.

The pandemic has hit black communities especially hard

On May 6, The Washington Post reported that predominantly black counties had accounted for more than half of all U.S. coronavirus cases and almost 60 percent of coronavirus deaths. This pattern has persisted for several weeks. As of April 7, in Louisiana, black people accounted for 70 percent of coronavirus deaths despite making up 32 percent of the population, as reported by The Post. In Chicago, where black people are 32 percent of the population, black residents accounted for 67 percent of coronavirus deaths.

Several structural factors converged to produce this high mortality rate. Many impoverished black communities are considered “food deserts,” with few grocery stores or other sources of fresh and affordable food; that contributes to high rates of obesity and diabetes, which can increase mortality risk for covid-19. Further, the legacy of racially biased economic policies means a disproportionate number of black Americans work in front-line service jobs and live in crowded rental housing, putting them at higher risk for encountering the virus.

How we did our research

People who are high in racial resentment do not attribute inequality to accumulated disadvantages from decades of discrimination, but to individuals’ failures to embrace and act on American ideals of hard work, self-reliance and individualism.

We sought to test whether racial resentment is associated with the belief that black Americans are to blame for being hard hit by the pandemic. To do that, between April 13 and 15, Change Research conducted an online survey of 1,350 Americans. The survey was stratified by demographic factors and weighted to ensure our data was nationally representative. We asked respondents to indicate which groups they believed had been most impacted by the coronavirus. Across demographic groups, including race and party, Americans are aware that black Americans are among the groups hit hardest.

Next, we assessed whether respondents agree that people need to take more personal responsibility for their health. Among white voters, we find that as racial resentment increases, so does the likelihood of agreeing with the statement that if certain groups are at higher risk due to obesity or diabetes, they can and should do better at controlling those underlying illnesses. This relationship holds even when we control for demographics and political party.

But it’s possible these attitudes are related for reasons other than race. That is, Americans with more racially conservative views may think all Americans need to take personal responsibility for their health, not just African Americans.

To examine this, Change Research conducted a second online survey of 920 white Americans from April 17 to 18, this time with an experimental paradigm. We tested whether racially resentful white Americans think black Americans are more responsible for their health risks than other groups of Americans.

We wrote a short blurb of information describing black Americans’ high prevalence of coronavirus risk factors. Next, we randomly assigned each respondent to read the information, but we varied what group respondents were led to believe were suffering these risks: either rural Americans, elderly Americans or black Americans. The text was identical in all three readings; the only thing that varied was the group being discussed. We then asked the same question about personal responsibility from our first survey.

Among whites who scored high in racial resentment, reading about high rates of covid-19 risk factors among black Americans led them to endorse the need to take personal responsibility far more strongly than reading about the virus hitting older Americans or rural Americans. That wasn’t true for those who scored low in racial resentment; they were less likely to endorse personal responsibility overall, and their beliefs did not vary across groups.

What does this mean?

These findings suggest that some racial attitudes lead people to dismiss black Americans’ illnesses as their own fault — while not believing the same thing for other groups. That raises questions about whether racially resentful whites will be willing to make sacrifices to slow the spread of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting African Americans.

Lauren Goldstein (@lmgoldst) is a PhD candidate in social psychology at UCLA and a survey data analyst with Change Research. She conducts research on how white Americans’ racial attitudes influence their political attitudes and behaviors.