Racewatch: When the professors help!


Measurement is hard: Imagine that you are asked to perform some basic measurements.

Imagine that you’re asked to measure the height and weight of four hundred people. Now, imagine that you’re asked to measure their “racial resentment.”

The first task would be time-consuming, but simple. We all agree on the way we measure height and weight.

The second task would be quite hard. Most likely, you’d have no idea how to proceed. “Racial resentment” is a complex designation. Most likely, you’d have no idea how to measure the “racial resentment” of those four hundred folk.

Into this vacuum step the nation’s professors! They do know how to measure a person’s “racial resentment,” or at least that's what they tell us. In fact, such measurement is done all the time—if you accept the professors’ professional judgment.

It’s your obligation as a citizen to figure out if their judgments make sense.

Monday, in this blog post, Kevin Drum discussed a new study by Emory’s Alan Abramowitz, author of one of the dumbest political assessments we’ve ever seen committed to print. In his new study, Abramowitz discusses the “racial resentment” of self-identified tea party supporters in October 2010.

How does Abramowitz know about the “racial resentment” of those tea party folk? He is using data from “the October, 2010 wave of the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey,” a venerable survey a gang of professors conduct every few years.

Abramowitz didn’t generate the data on “racial resentment,” but he did accept their validity. It’s your obligation as a citizen to figure out if that makes sense.

You can count us as major skeptics—but then, unlike mewling fellow liberals, we noticed a basic fact long ago: In this country, high-ranking professors often just aren’t very sharp.

Today, we’re going to show you the questions the professors use to determine a person’s “racial resentment.” As a citizen, it’s your job to decide if people should base such an important judgment on the answers to questions like these.

Are citizens loaded with “racial resentment?” Do we know how to measure this trait? When the professors want to do so, these are the questions they ask. Respondents are asked if they agree, or disagree, with the following statements:
Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.

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.
Right on their (lengthy) questionnaire, the professors refer to this four-question section as the “racial resentment scale.” (Scroll down to page 19.)

It’s your decision as a citizen: Can we measure a person’s “racial resentment” by asking those four questions?

For ourselves, we’re inclined to see this effort as tragically dumb and misguided. You can always call something “racial resentment,” of course. But can you really measure that trait by asking those four questions? In our view, the use of the buzz phrase “special favors” makes the first question especially shaky. Meanwhile, the third question is so laughably imprecise that any decent person will want to avert his gaze.

Unless you simply accept this idea: The professors must know what they’re doing!

Here at the HOWLER, we don’t have a lot of regard for the nation’s professors. We know of no group that has failed us more thoroughly over the past thirty years. As a group, the professors have basically sat out the last thirty years—although, in fairness, they've often been away on sabbatical, likely in France. And when they do try to intervene by making their highly expert measurements, they show up with questions like these, tied to a very shaky and very inflammatory judgment.

Our view? In this, their own small way, they help raise high the tribal walls, thus helping the plutocrats win. People! Divide and conquer!

Tomorrow, we’ll show you how people answered those questions in October 2010. It’s true! Many tea party supporters gave the wrong answers to the professors’ questions. But then again, so did rather large percentages of everyone else.

It’s true! When the professors start measuring traits, large percentages give the wrong answers! Tea party supporters failed their test. But so did large chunks of everyone else—although we liberals aren’t bright enough to work such bone-simple facts into our gong-show tribal reactions.

In our view, Kevin played ditto-head in that post, and as you know, we're fans of his work. Most commenters were eager to follow. But how did respondents answer those questions back in October 2010?

If we might borrow from Walter Mondale: Kevin didn’t tell you. We will.


  1. It may be hard to measure, but that doesn't mean racial resentment is tribal fiction. I'm retired, and I work at a golf course a couple of days a week in exchange for free golf -- like about 30 other local guys, mostly retirees, all white. Many of them are Dittoheads, and the way they talk about the President conveys a boatload of racial resentment. Would they express themselves as negatively towards a President Hilary Clinton? No doubt. But their words would drip with sexism instead of racism. These white guys don't recognize that they have ever enjoyed personal advantage due to their class, gender or race, but they sure do think women and blacks can only advance through preferential treatment.

  2. The question of whether the test measures racial resentment is not going to be settled by the citizenry, but by consideration of its test characteristics. For example, what is the internal consistency of the scale (that is, are the items correlated?). If the items aren't correlated, then it's not a scale. And so on, culminating in the big question of how well a score on the scale predicts manifestations of racial resentment and other measures of racial resentment. If the professors provided this information then the question is easily answered. In my long experience in evaluating tests like this, the answer has been that there is very little evidence that the test measures anything. In particular, a four-item scale is usually not up to much. But we won;t know until we see the test characteristics.

  3. Erratum: In my last post, read "there is USUALLY very little evidence..."

  4. Can't wait to read about how the fact that some non-Tea Party members express racial resentment proves that Tea Party members simply can't be racist. The notion that anyone has ever said that only Tea Party members are possessed of any racial resentment and the notion that no self-described liberals bear any racial resentment better kiss its straw rear-end goodbye!

    As for the study questions, it seems pretty obvious polling is never going provide definitive answers on such a nuanced and controversial topic. At best they might be used to establish correlations, i.e. between the answers of outspoken racists, civil rights activists, and the rest of us, who may not have spent much time examining our views on race. Many of us might very well be dismayed by where our knee-jerk reactions fall on that continuum, regardless of our own professed beliefs on the issue, or even our own race.

  5. To the degree that there are any major deposits of resentment out there, why not attribute it to constantly being labeled as a racist or bigot? Call it "racist-tagging resentment."

    Many resent affirmative action. But possibly not for the principle behind it -- giving underprivileged groups a helpful leg up -- but for the way it's almost invariably implemented, mandated and engineered as it is by mainly white elites who never bear any of the burden themselves but who instead impose all the burden (sometimes a quite heavy and personal penalty that one somehow is never supposed to take personally) on lower- and middle-class whites.

    Imagine how much more popular this policy would be in college admissions if the whites excluded to make way for underprivileged minorities were routinely the most privileged whites, those with family money and perfect SAT scores and the like. This would make elemental sense. If the goal is to achieve racial and ethnic balance, why not take a progressive approach and do it at the expense of those most able to bear the cost?

    But this, like so many liberal/elite remedies for society's ills, does just the opposite. In these ways, the liberal agenda is regressive in the extreme, and all the more maddening because there's no way to object without instantly being labeled a caveman.

    The funny thing is, the American left used to know this. Back in the '50s, liberals were shunned for this very tendency to find ways to foreground their own enlightened sensibilities at others', but not their, expense. Cheap compassion, let's call it. Maybe the Tea folk are suffering from "cheap compassion fatigue."

    -- Pelham

  6. I am not an expert on academic surveys, so I'll pass on that.

    But, Bob, you have correctly observed that tribalism appears to be wired into our brains. If that's the case, why is it so problematic, even egregious, when liberals and others take note of the presence of tribalism's most pernicious offshoot: racism.

    You are comfortable talking about tribalism --- particularly the tribalism of our side --- but seem to want to avoid altogether racism. Why so selective? Why is it OK when you do it --- when you call your fellow libs tribal --- but not OK when someone else points out that maybe racism might be a factor in our politics?

  7. "These white guys don't recognize that they have ever enjoyed personal advantage due to their class, gender or race, but they sure do think women and blacks can only advance through preferential treatment."

    lol this nut writes as if affirmative action is a figment of Rush Limbaugh's tortured imagination...as if black crime was an invention of racist cops...as if the liberal world that venerates "the other" with mindless PC pap doesn't exist...as Bob says, you just can't get dumber

  8. "You are comfortable talking about tribalism --- particularly the tribalism of our side --- but seem to want to avoid altogether racism. Why so selective? Why is it OK when you do it --- when you call your fellow libs tribal --- but not OK when someone else points out that maybe racism might be a factor in our politics?"

    Probably because calling out the other side's tribalism allows you to pretend your own doesn't exist. It's a huge human weakness--vanity and arrogance--and, no, you don't get to decide that you are free of this vice. That's for others to determine. Whereas forcing yourself to see "your side's" errors is much more difficult, even painful, and--get this--you learn a lot more about human nature in doing it.

    But don't worry, Geoff. No one's forcing you! You can stick to your all junk food diet, rage about the other side, contemplate your own innate superiority to "those people", etc.

  9. I don't do any of those things. I am just raising the question Udolpho. Am wondering how we confront race, which is perhaps the biggest elephant in the room in American politics.

  10. . . .as if the liberal world that venerates "the other" with mindless PC pap doesn't exist. . .

    That's funny, because what is this effort to tip-toe around evidence of racial resentment other than more political correctness?

  11. I'll say this: I've gone after liberal (social science) professors' academic surveys on my (LGBT) blog and all I got was shit for it from the career gays but cheers from people outside the nonprofit bubble. One particular pseudo-study from a think tank perfesser tried to estimate the number of LGBT people in the US by averaging several very faulty surveys together (because averaging bad studies produces a good study, as any real scientist knows), and the way the nonprofit folks ran to defend that methodology just showed how empty the movement was.

    So go Bob. Seriously, the social sciences need to learn that if they want the respect that the hard sciences get, they have to actually use some rigor instead of putting out fun facts as if academic papers are Snapple caps.

    As for this survey, I would have given the "wrong" answer to the first question as I don't consider affirmative action a "special favor." The third is even more muddied by the fact that few white people even understand how affirmative action programs work (see anonymous above, who rails against the affirmative action programs of an alternate universe), what with them being the target of rightwing lies for decades.

    And, on the whole, that survey expects white people to know something about how black people live, which isn't always the case either. There's a difference between ignorance and racial resentment. There are members of my family who don't like black people and make their racial views known, and there are others who never talk about racial issues, know no one who's black, and I have no idea how they'd answer questions on a survey like this since they probably never thought about it much anyway (my brother and I were talking about this once and I found that he had never thought, at all, about why black people were poorer in general than white people. He didn't say anything about bootstraps - he really had no clue).

    And that's not to say that there aren't Tea Partiers who are racist. In my experience 3/4 of people who I've met who are really into movement conservatism were pretty racist (one guy complained to me about how there were racial minorities in his daughter's Spanish textbook, another just looooooves "watermelon eater" jokes, another person I knew wanted the black neighbors to move away because they made him "afraid," so instead he just bought a gun, etc.).

    But "in my experience" isn't a real study of any sort.

  12. Take heart, Alex Blaze. Your experience is superior to these flawed "studies". You've done exactly what Somerby has criticized bloogers and journalists for not doing -- you talked to actual Tea Partiers!

    For my part, I don't have the patience. I prefer to ignore their professed beliefs and motivations and simply judge them on the policies they advocate and the gurus they appoint for themselves.

    Funnily enough, everything I have seen from polling, accounts of actual interactions and analysis of the Tea Party platform (pick any one) invites pretty much the same set of conclusions.

  13. Am I ready for this? to comment directly on a Daily Howler post? I'm not sure I like being able to do that.

    Well, briefly, on one aspect of this post. While in sympathy with the general tenor and argument of this post, I object to bob somerby's use of one Emory social scientists's study as illustrative of "the nation's professors." Kind of replicates the very fault he is criticizing in that professor and others like Drum.

    But then, one thing I LIKE about DH generally: holding "our tribe" to account. If others do something we criticize, we really need to try not to do it ourselves. I'll stop there. (I'll go on too long if I don't.)

  14. mch-- You're dead-on, for a couple of reasons. Bob makes a number of sweeping claims about "the nation's professors," when what he's really talking about is essentially the same type of elites that he so disdains (rightfully) in the so-called liberal media. He the supplements it with the very type of ignorant cheap shots he regularly blasts others for. Sabbaticals in France? I'd settle for decent health insurance.