Racism and Right Wing Opposition to Obama

The question of racism among those attacking Barack Obama was raised again when Obama appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. Not surprisingly, Obama tries to play this down but this issue has been raised repeatedly due to the many signs of racism from the far right.

Sometimes the question is posed as by questioning whether racism is the main reason for the form of opposition to Obama we are seeing from the far right. I’ve felt that the question is not this simple as the authoritarian right has many reasons for its views on Obama and it is impossible to separate out race. While not all conservatives are racists, racism has been a major component of American conservatism. A conservative movement which would already oppose the actions of any liberal Democratic president is going to be even more extreme when faced with a black liberal Democrat.

Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, authors of Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, have looked at the correlation between opposition to Obama’s health care proposals and racial attitudes. They found that racism is a factor, but only one factor in the opposition to health care reform coming from the authoritarian right:

As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.

Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.

Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.

No such relationship between racial attitudes and opinions on health care existed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton effort.

It would be silly to assert that all, or even most, opposition to President Obama, including his plans for health care reform, is motivated by the color of his skin. But our research suggests that a key to understanding people’s feelings about partisan politics runs far deeper than the mere pros and cons of actual policy proposals. It is also about a collision of worldviews.

Viewed through that lens, it is not at all surprising that Rep. Joe Wilson blurted out “You lie!” following a reference to illegal immigrants, another object of grave concern to the more authoritarian.

Beneath the arguments about government intrusion into the health care market, death panels, and such, a much more emotionally-laden dynamic is at work. Views about race along with a suite of other visceral matters are linked to people’s opinions about health care reform, which likely explains why the present debate has caused a much stronger uproar than it did in 1994.

Interesting data. Considering all the misinformation being spread on health care reform, it is important to point out that, while the studies might have considered the question of government run health care, this not what is being proposed in the current health care reform legislation. Despite this, the data is relevant to the current debate.

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  1. 1
    Bob says:

    It’s not really surprising that people who show a high level of racial resentment tend to oppose social programs that would benefit poor minorities. It should be clear, though, that the study does *not* show that people who oppose ‘socialized medicine’ tend to have a high level of racial resentment (the two claims are not convertible). I know a great number of people who oppose government-run health insurance, and none of them are racists or display anything like racial resentment. Rather, their opposition stems from a mixture of reasonable worries and utter paranoia and suspicion of everything about the federal government. It’s anti-statism that really drives this thing, and the fact that racists tend to be anti-statists doesn’t show that anti-statists tend to be racists. Ironically, the strand of American conservatism that we’re seeing now is the deeply *anti-authoritarian* strand. So your continual characterization of conservatives as ‘authoritarian’ is not really apt. In fact, libertarianism is as central a strand of conservatism, both in its pure form and in various degrees of mixture with other kinds of conservatism. Like most everyone else, you seem to overestimate the ideological coherence of conservatism — in fact it is a hodgepodge of different views that are in many cases deeply opposed in theory but unified in a core set of policy ideas. Conservatism as a movement is even less coherent than the progressivism that can’t figure out how exactly to unravel its own libertarian and authoritarian strands. Treating either as a single, conceptually unified ideology is a mistake. It may be an even bigger mistake than trying to pin racist sentiments on conservatives as such.

  2. 2
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Not all of the prejudice that motivates opposition to Obama is ‘racist’ either. Or at least, not about him being black. Cultural attitudes about women (federally funded abortion!), Hispanics (free medical care for illegal immigrants on your dime!), bureaucracy (death panels!), and individual expression (NEA propaganda!) drive many of the core lies being used to attack health care specifically or Obama in general. The defining trait of modern American conservatism at the grass roots level is not racism, but rather a set of cultural biases of which racism is one core poisonous component among several.
    Conservatives who do not share those cultural biases tend to spend much of their time as apologists for those biases, either denying their existence entirely or projecting them onto liberals. These can most frequently be seen on blogs of ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ Republicans who nevertheless parrot every right wing talking point as gospel even when it directly conflicts with their expressed social liberalism. In these cases they always represent the conservatives as being ‘better’ than the liberals on issues such as poverty and race. They are always able to offer attacks on specific Democrats who prove their ‘liberals are racist misogynists who hate the poor’ cant without offering specific evidence to support the argument that conservatives are truly ‘better’ or directly confronting liberal arguments.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    ‘Ironically, the strand of American conservatism that we’re seeing now is the deeply *anti-authoritarian* strand.’
    This is not completely true. When it comes to social programs or public spending, American conservatives use anti-authoritarian arguments and appeal to traditional values of American individualism. This is not the same as being ‘anti-authoritarian.’
    Conservative arguments about national security (the heavy criticism of President Obama across the right of the political spectrum every time he reverses some of the unjustifiable human rights abuses of the Bush Adiministration in the smallest way), abortion, gay rights, and crime are not at all ‘anti-authoritarian.’ Indeed, they increase government power and influence and the threat of statism in far more significant ways than economic recovery programs or ‘socialized medicine.’
    Thus, to call movement conservatism ‘anti-authoritarian’ is intellectually dishonest. Conservatives advocate ‘moral’ authority rather over ‘human’ authority, but their agenda is most certainly authoritarian.  They view the government as an organ of human power (which is a correct view, but not the only correct view) to be wielded according to ‘moral’ authority (which is a dangerous view) rather than (the equally correct and equally important view) as the mechanism by which civil society comes together to make decisions that cannot be made by individuals alone.
    Is the latter view of government really more ‘authoritarian’ or ‘statist’ than the former?

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Conservatism frequently uses anti-authoritarian rhetoric while pursuing an authoritarian platform. Even in the cases where they are actually opposing increases in government power they are quite selective as to which government actions they oppose. Unfortunately even many of the libertarian elements of the right have been contaminated by their association with the authoritarian right.

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