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  • U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses attendees during a campaign rally at St Mary’s Park in Bronx, New York March 31, 2016.

    U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses attendees during a campaign rally at St Mary’s Park in Bronx, New York March 31, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 April 2016
How racial bias is undermining Bernie Sanders' "socialist" agenda.

The 2016 election has brought the idea of “revolutionary politics” back to the mainstream. The Sanders camp and especially the Trump camp have galvanized new voters who are fed-up with the mainstream American political discourse. The hallmarks of Sanders' socialist agenda – like free college tuition and increasing taxes on the rich – have mainstream appeal.


The Appropriation of Bernie Sanders?

Nonetheless, Sanders’ message for change centers mostly around economics – racial issues often come secondary, which can mostly be resolved with the correct economic policies. Besides, Sanders supporters argue, their candidate should be the top choice for minorities, because, his policies are best designed to ameliorate minorities' economic plight. Moreover, in light of recent voting trends that reveal Blacks are supporting Clinton over Sanders by margins of greater than 2:1, some Sanders supporters have resorted to calling South Carolina voters (i.e., Blacks) “low information.” Others have referred to the southern Democratic electorate, which in some cases (e.g., Mississippi) is around 70 percent Black, as the “confederacy.” This raises the question, even though white Sanders' supporters are disproportionately liberal, do some nevertheless harbor racial resentment? If so, how do these views affect policy preferences?

To test this we analyzed data from the January 2016 American National Election Survey or ANES, which included public opinion measures of various policy issues including some that have racial undertones. The following questions serve as our dependent variables – attitudes that are influenced by one’s level of racial resentment:

Social/Economic Policy

1. Belief that the federal government should increases spending on health and education

2. Support for the belief that the gap between the rich and poor has increased over the past 20 years

Race Relations

1. Support for affirmative action for Blacks in higher education

2. Opposition to the idea that police often stop Blacks for no valid reason

Racial resentment, also known as symbolic racism, is a subtle form of racism that blends negative feelings about Blacks as a group with traditional American values, specifically individualism (i.e., the protestant work ethic).

Even though white Sanders' supporters are disproportionately liberal, do some nevertheless harbor racial resentment?

Whites who are high in racial resentment tend to believe that the reason Blacks don’t get ahead in society is primarily due to the fact that they don’t work hard enough and not due to discrimination. While individualism is often associated with conservative politics, research has shown that White liberals also harbor racial resentment against Blacks.

It seems obvious that Trump supporters would score extremely high on racial resentment; however, we suspect that a not insignificant percentage of white Sanders supporters – and even Clinton supporters – harbor racial resentment that manifests itself in various political and policy attitudes.

The ANES asks the following questions, which we aggregate to compile a racial resentment score for each respondent in the survey.

1. Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve (disagree).

2. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors (agree).

3. 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 (agree).

4. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class (disagree).

Given that exit polls consistently show – at least among whites – that Sanders supporters are more politically liberal than Clinton supporters, we might expect to see very low levels of racial resentment among Sanders supporters. Conflating liberalism (which is just as much about one's view on the role of government) with racial attitudes, though, is mistaken.


US Elections

It is actually quite easy to imagine an older white Sanders supporter from Oklahoma, New Hampshire, or anywhere else who also harbors some form of anti-Black affect or racial resentment. Figure 1 shows the percentage of each candidate's supporters who score high (above the average) and low (below the average) on our measure of racial resentment. A full 43 percent of Sanders' white supporters exhibit relatively high levels of racial resentment. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Clinton supporters also share similar racially resentful views. Of course, these numbers are relatively small compared to Trump – 81 percent of these voters are racially resentful.

Figure 1

Racial Resentment and Public Policy

To assess how racial resentment influences policy preferences, we first controlled for a respondent’s level of educational attainment, gender, age, status as a registered voter, political knowledge, household income, party identification and political ideology.


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Results suggest that for white supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, racial resentment decreases support for: 1) the of expansion social programs in health and education, 2) affirmative action in university admissions for Black applicants and 3) the idea that police often stop Blacks without a valid reason.

Racial resentment was also found to decrease support for the idea that the gap between rich and poor has increased over the past 20 years among white Bernie Sanders supporters. This effect was not found for white Hillary Clinton supporters or even for white Donald Trump supporters (see Figure 2).

Surprisingly, racial resentment was also found to predict attitudes toward foreign policy. Specifically, racial resentment was found to decrease support for allowing Syrian refugees into the United States for both Clinton and Sanders supporters.

Lastly, racial resentment was found to increase support for the war against the Islamic State group in Syria among white Sanders supporter but not for white Clinton supporters or even for white Trump supporters. Part of the explanation for these findings is that Sanders supporters who are low on racial resentment tend toward very tolerant positions – so the change between them and those high in racial resentment is quite stark.

Figure 2

In line with other recent findings, our results suggest that racial resentment is not necessarily endemic to white political ideology. Racial resentment manifests itself among some self-described liberals, Sanders and Clinton supporters, not just among the most conservative elements of the Trump coalition.

More broadly the results we present cast doubt that many others have made about the viability of class-based solutions for racial inequality in America as Sanders has supported. America isn’t a relatively homogeneous society like Denmark, as such, support for socialist polices (e.g., increased spending on health and education) are as we show, often affected by people’s attitudes toward the group those policies might benefit. As such it is highly likely that any effort to expand the social safety net will face significant resistance.


Bernie Sanders: 'Drones Have Done Some Good Things'

While one may argue that the findings presented are theoretical, looking at American’s history with race it is very clear as to how racism limits the viability of socialism. For example, during the 1956 Milwaukee mayoral election incumbent socialist mayor Frank P. Zeidler who championed an urban renewal program was hit by political attacks which alleged that he was placing billboards in the South attracting African Americans to Milwaukee so that they could benefit from public housing and increased social services.

Although Zeidler won the election, Milwaukee’s political scene had been transformed from one based on class to one based on race. Support for socialist policies decreased dramatically as the Black population increased. Today Milwaukee is listed as the most segregated city in the nation and among the worst cities in the country for African Americans. The data presented in our analysis of current survey data suggest that even today a President Sanders or a President Clinton for that matter would have difficulty getting large scale social problems solved due to America’s deep seated resentment of Blacks.

Daniel Byrd is an independent researcher and social psychologist.

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