It is a story of how aggrieved White Americans can leverage that anger toward political action in a way that Black Americans cannot.
Why America has a ‘racial anger gap’
My research examines how race shapes people’s emotional responses to politics, and the translation of those emotions to political behavior. Wednesday’s assault painted a particularly vivid picture of what I call the “racial anger gap.”
Despite generally expressing greater dissatisfaction with how they are treated and less trust that politics works fairly, African Americans consistently express significantly less anger about politics than Whites. For example, in American National Election Study (ANES) surveys dating to 1980, Black Democrats are about 7 percentage points less likely than White Democrats to express anger toward the Republican presidential incumbent or candidate — even though Black Democrats express much greater disapproval of Republican incumbents.
One cause of this disparity is Black people’s concern over the potential stigma of White people perceiving them as angry. The stereotype of the danger posed by the “angry Black person” has long been embedded in the nation’s consciousness. It has been wielded in particular to constrain Black women, who not coincidentally have been the drivers of the electoral sea change against which the insurrectionists rage. It is this calculation of the costs of anger that probably causes the small subset of Black ANES respondents surveyed by a Black interviewer to be 1.5 times as likely to express anger as those surveyed by a White interviewer.
African Americans are wary of being labeled ‘angry’
This illustrates African Americans’ acute awareness of the risks imposed by being labeled as “angry while Black.” Many African Americans believe they carry the presumption of guilt and the risk of arrest or police violence — even when they’re just barbecuing or birdwatching in public parks, napping in college dorms and canvassing in their neighborhoods.
The legal scrutiny of Black political movements, the caricaturing of prominent Black female political figures as angry Black women and the dismissal of Black demands for racial justice as “just virtue signaling” all communicate that African Americans’ expressions of political grievances are likely to be met with ridicule, pushback and even legal recrimination.
The response to White Americans’ expressions of grievance are often quite different. From examinations of the Trump vote that touted economic anxieties rather than racial animus, to Trump’s refusal to condemn white nationalists at a presidential debate, to calls for Biden to extend an olive branch to the Trump base after the election, the grievances of Trump’s most loyal supporters have been legitimated, justified and tacitly endorsed for years.
White Americans may be more likely to express political anger
For this reason, White Americans can be more comfortable both expressing their anger over politics and, crucially, acting on that anger. This emerges in my analysis of the 2016 Collaborative Multi-racial Post-election Survey. I found White people who said that over the course of the election they were angry “all of the time” were about 6 times as likely to donate to a campaign as those who said they were never angry. The most angry Whites were also four times as likely to contact a local official, and about five times as likely to participate in a protest.
In contrast, Black people who reported feeling angry all the time were only 1.5 times as likely to donate, 1.7 times as likely to contact officials and about three times as likely to protest. A project with Maneesh Arora shows Latinos and Asian Americans exhibit anger gaps similar to Black Americans. White Americans are unique in how much they leverage their anger toward political action.
These patterns reflect the ability of White people to be unapologetically angry without intensive scrutiny — even as Black people’s expressions of grievance are repeatedly framed as unpatriotic or dangerous. But they also reflect differences in White and Black people’s perceptions of their influence within politics. In a 2018 study, Nathan Chan and I found White people are much more confident in the political influence of their racial group. White people were about 33 percent more likely than Black people to say their racial group generally has a say in how government handles important issues. White people were also about 27 percent more likely to report public officials generally work hard on behalf of their racial group.
As these patterns suggest, more confidence that politics works for their group engenders White Americans with greater political entitlement. When that entitlement is not realized, anger takes root. In the absence of meaningful interrogation of or pushback against that anger, to which African Americans are regularly subjected, it can simmer until it boils over, as it did last week.
This in part is the story of the U.S. Capitol siege. It is a story that probably will be repeated if elected leaders and media commentators fail to understand the potentially corrosive effects of White anger.
Davin L. Phoenix (@Davin_Phoenix) is an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, and author of “The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotions in Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).