That doesn't mean it makes sense to give up on seeking rural votes
I also wonder to what extent all these things correlate with wealth / income. Most of rural America is really struggling economically, and I think it’s hard for people who are seeing their communities die to believe that they somehow have a special advantage in life. It may be true in aggregate, but individuals aren’t statistics.
John McWhorter has advocated for changing affirmative action in universities to focus strictly on low income families, and I recall a while back that Texas A&M made a big program to recruit first generation college students. Those kinds of programs will still greatly benefit racial minority groups, but because they aren’t explicitly racial they don’t exclude the possibility of a very poor or low status white person from benefitting, which leads to less opposition and less resentment.
Lastly I strongly agree that there’s a messaging problem. Many on the left have become infected with this idea that America is an evil nation, some think irredeemably evil. That seeps into the messaging and drives away most of the country. If we’re all evil then what are you going to do if you’re elected, punish us for our sins? How is that going to help? To win in America it helps to believe that America is a fundamentally good nation that is always overcoming its flaws and moving toward the “more perfect Union,” and you have to cast a positive vision of how we can all win and make things better for everyone together.
I wonder what would happen if the same people who were asked, "Do you agree or disagree that white people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin?" had instead been asked, "Do you agree or disagree that black people in the United States have been treated worse because of the color of their skin?"
That difference in framing could be huge. Most white people, especially those who aren't at least upper middle class, don't think of themselves as having *extra* advantages, but may recognize that others are treated worse than they are.
Man, I swear I'm going to cut back on Substack, and you lure me back in with this blatant catnip.
I find the Wapo analysis superficial, and unchallenging to the self-serving biases of urban voters. Its analysis, and the studies it cite, assume as fact that white Americans do enjoy significant advantages on account of their whiteness (as opposed to their inherited wealth or dominant cultural traits, for those who specifically enjoy those privileges--something not true of all whites and not untrue of all non-whites), and these "racist" rural voters are "denying" it/their own racism. Now, to be clear, I personally believe that there are some advantages to being white in America, as there are with being attractive, thin, athletically-inclined, born to a married pair of college-educated parents, natively English speaking, etc etc etc. You could add "urban" to the list too. The racial advantage is definitely more unfair than the others as it should be totally irrelevant. But it's time to admit that this dynamic is always changing/evolving (studies from 2004 are ancient history), and it's conflated with 1000 other factors (wealth, culture, network effects, etc)... each person's assessment of its salience today will be heavily impacted by the world they live in, the people they know personally, the news they read. Again, the authors take a firm position that their assessment of the current state of racial advantages is the accurate one, and the rural denial of their assessment is not just a difference of perspective but a moral failing.
Additionally, they assume these immoral attitudes come first, and the political alignment comes second, caused by the racial attitudes--a causation claim supported only by tight correlation. My personal belief is that moral frameworks evolve in a group to bind them together in opposition to a perceived threat/enemy, in this case, elite urban liberals lecturing them about how racist they are. The more "we" talk about racism, the more "they" will take an oppositional stance. The more "they" take the opposite stance, the more "we" feel the urge to talk about racism. Meanwhile, NO ONE is actually being helped--not minorities, not low-income people of all racial backgrounds/geographic locations, not politicians who want to pass laws or voters who want them to.
Y'all know I could talk all day about this but I really do have to go. Here's more of my half-baked philosophy on all this... https://postwoke.substack.com/p/systems-and-starlings-and-magnets
In medicine, we’ve finally learned that if you want someone to change a harmful belief or behavior, the least effective thing to do is shouting and shaming. The best thing to do is to listen to the patient’s values and goals and help them see how the new behavior better fits with how they see themselves and what they want to accomplish. Oh, and don’t focus on how hard and unpleasant change will be. I’m perplexed why my fellow progressives think that the best way we can cure people of racial biases is to blame them and tell them they need to do a lot of work and it will be unpleasant. It may be justified and fair, but I’m not clear why we should expect it to work based on what else we know about changing human behavior
As a "woke" rural liberal, I have no trouble agreeing that white privilege is very real. However, few rural white people experience their lives as privileged. That makes it exceedingly difficult to argue for policies that will level up people of color. I'm not sure how to resolve this rhetorical conundrum.
I strongly dislike the term "systemic racism" because of
A) The way it is used, with the twin purposes of silencing people who's opinions you disagree with, and to draw moral conclusions about issues and institutions which do not logically stem from the facts. Is the Senate "systemically racist" because more white people live in rural states? I think the answer is obviously no; there is a bias, but the bias itself is not racist. As Matt wrote: nobody who crafted the Senate thought "this is a way we can keep POC from power in the future!" I doubt they thought about how this will impact race relations much at all. The Senate is no more racist than any other institution, it has bias problems which must be addressed, and we can draw that conclusion without morally blinding ourselves.
B) The inherent moral judgment in the term leads to overreaction. The Senate's bias against Democrats has existed for about a decade, and during that time Democrats controlled the Senate for three of the six Senate cycles. There is no guarantee that Republicans will control the Senate forever. As we saw in both 2018 and 2020: state partisan leans change. Arizona and Georgia elected slates of Democratic senators, which was unthinkable a decade ago. There is no reason Democrats cannot find other opportunities to win other former red states. North Carolina, Texas and Florida could all flip to purple or blue states. If migration from California continues other states could come into play as well.
The best political solution for Democrats is to work within the system to win, the current Democratic Party is self-righteously assuming they are on the "right side of history" and are demanding they be handed power instead of actually working to obtain it. I voted for Joe Biden but he has, at minimum, acquiesced to this language in his presidency (which is disappointing). Democrats need to find ways to elect MORE Joe Manchins, Sherrod Browns and Jon Testers not less. The current Democratic Party seems disinterested in this concept.
It's a little simplistic to reduce "the urban/rural divide" like this survey apparently did, when the lived reality in different places is not the same when it comes to race.
Every community has it's food chain, with some people at the top and some at the bottom. That's true in a city or state that 98% white and in one that much more mixed. But to tell the people in the community that's overwhelmingly white that race is a big part of advancing, or not, in America, when in their community there's no evidence of that, is to talk about something that just isn't very relevant to daily life in that community. It can seem out of touch and forced.
I think that's more true of the upper northwest quadrant of the country, less so the southeast. And Central American immigration is different again.
My unoriginal observation about this, is that rural people put a high value on patriotism and respect for authority. The Vietnam War created a root association of racial justice and liberal militancy with contempt for and hostility to those basic values. It was the major line of social division when I was growing up in Kansas in the curdled tail-end of that period. And this division has been ground in throughly in the half century since. Factor this out of your statistics, and you may find the racial component to be less than you think.
The determination to associate disrespectful and unpatriotic woke discourse with basic justice for black people, is utterly lethal to that cause. Maybe challenging Fox News to feature more of the many black people in our nation who serve in the military and love their country, might have a positive effect. Not on the Democrats’ prospects for election, but at least on polls about racial attitudes in Red areas.
I understand and largely believe the correlations that this piece brings out, but I've always found the claims that "racial resentment" is *causally* responsible for the urban-rural divide weird for several reasons.
First, I think we need to parse what these survey questions are actually asking. The most precise interpretation that I can attempt is the following: "Do racist attitudes account for a large share of income and wealth disparities across *individuals* in the U.S.?" This is an empirical claim, not a value judgment. I have no idea how exactly one could test it-- the ideal experiment would be to change the skin color of a random sample of Americans. It seems strange to moralize this type of statement. Additionally, there's a broad range of possible interpretations of this question.
Second, there's some evidence that people who think black individuals don't face a significant disadvantage also have this attitude about ALL races:
That is, when you ask people the same racial resentment questions, but insert "Latvian" or "Greek" rather than "Black," they give the same answers.
Third, the fact that these racial resentment measures aren't super robust suggests that rural voters may just have a very different mental model of how the world works. I wouldn't be surprised if this same mental model is what makes them distrust coastal elites (since apparently there's also a strong correlation between social trust and voting for Trump). Out of all the things that correlate with voting for Trump, how can we say that racist attitudes are the root cause and decisive voting issue?
Rural whites I know eat up any messaging from their favorite sources that say urbanites are calling them racists. I don’t think there is much progressives can do to counter this. The slightest anecdote gets transformed into a talking point that elites are calling them racist. One such person I know even seems proud to end any sentence with, “well, I guess I’m just a racist.” The right knows this messaging works, they’ve turned it into a weird badge of honor. When Trump says he’s the least racist person he knows, well, that guy probably believes that about himself too. I think the best the left can do to is make modest gains, or move to the country (which is happening more).
I’m not a rural white voter, but I am a Southern, exurban voter whom overly woke Democrats might lose. Yet politics are neat. When I see once proud British dominions prostrated by lockdowns and supposedly free people willing to sell their freedom cheaply, and I see many progressives pining for similarly noxious lockdowns, I begin to feel a bit Republican. Covid cowardice is my biggest beef with progressives by far.
I think that there is some validity to the rural viewpoint. I am absolutely not saying that there is not systemic racism. But an awful lot of the unreasonable crap (like mistreatment by cops) that happens to poor black people happens to poor white people. I can see how they might be annoyed that "liberal elites" are framing as racial what might be framed to cover their own mistreatment.
I'm also always confused who Joe Biden is talking to when he talks about structural racism. You'd think that's messaging to Black voters to say "I've got your back". But everything I've heard tells me the Black voters who supported Biden don't care about this much...they're more conservative and tend to care more about policy issues. So is he just saying this to keep liberals on Twitter happy?
Good piece, Matt. Many people have said it, but it's a little weird to believe simultaneously that racism is the central animating theme of American history and also that it now needs to be stamped out everywhere at every turn.
I buy the "implicit bias" dogma that everyone harbors racist attitudes; in-group/out-group dynamics are found in every human society ever, so how could they not? There's a perfectly coherent synthesis of this idea with increasing demands for racial justice, viz. that we hate the sin and love the sinner. Racist systems and policies are bad; racist people are just you and me. This is the one useful contribution that Kendi makes to the conversation: racism is not a sin to be redeemed in the human heart, it's whatever leads to racist outcomes. (Although he goes off the rails when he defines any difference at all as racist.)
Instead, displaying racist attitudes is still the most stigmatized thing you can do in polite society. Why? Racism is horrible, so are people generally, and we don't say that only good people should vote. As you point out, throwing out all the crooked timber leaves us just about enough to build a small bookshelf.
As someone in the (small urban/suburban) Deep South who considers himself a “moderate” and who mostly votes Dem these days, it’s interesting to imagine what different messaging on race from Dems might look like. I think there’s a decent chance it would lead to some major internal divisions between the more urban and moderate Dem world.
During the Trump era, I would have fights with “certain people” in real life about racial issues. To be quite frank, in a general sense, I think some of these people were in a matter-of-fact-way truly racist. Violent racist? Not at all. They spoke highly of black people in their small hometown who “acted right” and weren’t into BLM and weren’t so destructive (a lot of these conversations happened in summer of 2020). But this same person also said it makes him sick when he sees a white woman and a black man together. Racism exists on a spectrum.
I remember debating this particular individual about general systematic racism, and one thing he would always say is “look at the Japanese! They were treated like shit but have been very successful compared to blacks!”
I of course would respond that the Japanese didn’t have the same level of oppression over the same amount of vast time as the blacks, and I also brought up the idea that Japanese self-selected to come here and that that self-selection from any group could possibly make them more resilient in the “business” sense vs a group that was forced to come here agains their will.
Anyway, of course none of my counter arguments worked. He would roll his eyes at them. But it’s funny how I kept trying to look for ways to find areas where I could agree with him.
Here a few direct messages I said to him:
1. Slavery and Jim Crow when thinking of race relations/issues today shouldn’t be thought of as *everything* and envoked every time there’s a racial issue to discuss. At the same time, it certainly shouldn’t be thought of as nothing in today’s racial world. But bringing it up every time something bad happens with race might be counterproductive I conceded.
2. This overlaps a little with 1, but I agreed/conceded that people (including me at times) talk too much about race, in general. I don’t care how right someone is or how righteous their views are, if it’s talked about constantly the risk of back lash is heightened.
But I think embracing both 1 & 2 above could cause fairly major rifts between Dems. Not sure it would move the needle much with conservatives. I think the guy I was talking to still views me as a squish just like he views most Dems.
Democratic candidates could make progress with voters by just avoiding academic language and talking about racism (and everything else) in the language of normal people.