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Race, Racism, and Resentment

- August 6, 2008

Andrew Sullivan runs the following “smart observations” from Publius at Obsidian Wings:

I’m a child of the rural South. But you know what? Actual racism is a lot less common there — we have a ways to go, but there has been real progress on that front. The more serious problem is white resentment. A lot of white people honestly think they have been significantly deprived of various things because of minorities. And it’s hard to overstate how deeply these feelings run.

It’s not so much animosity toward people who are different — it’s the animosity of the aggrieved. They feel like they are the victims. That’s why race is a losing issue for Obama — it’s not so much that people are racist, but that they feel they are being punished because they’re white (yes, I know how completely absurd this must sound to the black community).

Sullivan then adds, “This is the poisoned fruit of that poisonous, if well-intentioned, policy of affirmative action.”

Publius is right that racial resentment rather biological racism (the belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites) is much more prevalent (though not entirely absent) among contemporary whites. Nonetheless, such views didn’t originate because of affirmative action. Since the beginning of slavery, most whites have looked at race relations as a zero-sum game; any benefit for blacks must entail an equal or greater cost for whites. Slavery’s defenders argued that ending the peculiar institution would necessarily degrade the economic and social standing of whites. After slavery, proponents of Jim Crow claimed that extending civil rights to blacks would do the same. For example, when he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (a measure that extended to the freedmen such basic privileges of citizenship as the right to make contracts, to own property, and to appear as witnesses in court, among others), President Andrew Johnson claimed that the bill would “operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” In striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Justice Joseph Bradley argued that it was time for blacks to cease being the “special favorite of the laws

Similar arguments came from white opponents of the Civil Rights Movement. Integrating schools and public accommodations, they claimed, would infringe on the rights of whites to avoid mingling with other races. Open housing would deny property rights to white home owners and landlords. Unsurprisingly, David Duke’s website is called “WhiteCivilRights.com. Given this history, even if affirmative action had never existed, resentment would still be a significant part of the racial views of many whites.