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Study: telling white people they’ll be outnumbered makes them hate welfare more

White racism keeps hurting programs that help the poor.

Pro-SNAP protest at the Capitol.
A pro-food stamps protest on Capitol Hill.
Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

White people become significantly less likely to support welfare programs when told that black people might benefit from them.

That’s a crucial conclusion from a newly released study by Berkeley sociologist Rachel Wetts and her Stanford colleague Robb Willer in the journal Social Forces. The authors conducted two different experiments to see how white Americans’ attitudes toward nonwhite people affect their views on welfare spending. Both experiments found that showing white Americans data suggesting that white privilege is diminishing — that the US is becoming majority nonwhite, or that the gap between white and black/Latino incomes is closing — led them to express more opposition to welfare spending.

Wetts and Willer are hardly the first scholars to argue that racial animus is a powerful factor motivating opposition to social spending and redistribution in the US. Jill Quadagno’s The Color of Welfare in 1994 and Martin Gilens’s Why Americans Hate Welfare in 1999 credited racial factors — in particular, stereotypes of black people as lazy and overly dependent on government aid — with substantially reducing support for welfare spending since the war on poverty began in the 1960s.

The most difficult task in doing this research has always been disentangling opposition to welfare attributable to racial prejudice from opposition attributable to straightforward conservatism. People in the US who express conservative attitudes toward government spending are also likelier to score high on measures of racial resentment and prejudice. That’s not necessarily because of an essential link between the two; it could just be that, in the words of conservative writer Ben Howe, “the only people who seem to agree with you on taxes hate black people,” even though there are nonracial reasons to hold those views about taxes.

But the fact of the correlation makes it difficult to determine what’s driving what. Also a matter of contention is the use of “racial resentment” scales to measure racial animus. While “racial resentment” might sound like a euphemism for straightforward racism, such studies are not asking people things like “do you think whites are the superior race” or even “do you think black people are genetically inferior” in some way. Instead, they ask if respondents agree or disagree with statements like, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Advocates of “racial resentment” as a concept view this as reflecting the coded ways that racism is expressed in the modern era, as distinct from “old-fashioned” overt racism more common in the 1960s and earlier. But critics have argued that these questions can sometimes muddle the difference between racial animus and other beliefs, like economic conservatism (which is sometimes expressed as a belief that anyone can make it if they really try, and government aid thus isn’t necessary) or belief in a just world. These problems, they argue, have hampered past attempts to discern how much racism has undermined support for welfare programs, because the data sometimes doesn’t allow scholars to distinguish racial resentment from ordinary economic conservatism.

How the new study works

The new study seeks to address those concerns. To disentangle racial animus from legitimate small-government beliefs, Wetts and Willer structured their experiments so that they could compare the welfare policy views of people exposed to information suggesting a threat to whites’ social status (either a projection that America is becoming majority nonwhite or data showing the white-black/Latino income gaps closing) and people who were not exposed.

Because exposure to the information is randomly determined, one would expect each group to have similar levels of genuine conservatism on economic policy and welfare. The only difference is that one group has been primed to think about threats to white status in the US.

That difference turns out to matter quite a bit. In the first experiment, participants were shown either population projections from 2000 to 2020, which showed white Americans maintaining their majority with relatively minor changes, or projections from 1960 to 2060, which show a dramatic reduction in the white population share until it reaches minority status. The authors called these the “Majority Salient” and “Decline Salient” groups, respectively.

Each group was then asked if they agreed with two statements on welfare policy — “We are spending too much money on welfare” and “Public assistance is necessary to ensure fairness in our society” — and given a game where they had to find $500 million to cut from the federal budget; the game offered nine spending categories, one of which was “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Welfare).”

“While white participants who were told that whites continue to be the largest single ethnic group in the United States proposed cutting $28 million from federal welfare spending, those told that whites’ population share is substantially declining proposed cutting $51 million,” the authors find. “In addition, whites in the Decline Salient condition reported significantly greater opposition to welfare and higher levels of racial resentment on survey measures.” Black, Latino, and Asian people in the study, by contrast, gave similar answers no matter what information they were shown.

The threat of white decline appeared to prompt whites to turn against welfare, with minimal effect on everyone else.

The second experiment was somewhat more intricate. Participants were randomly shown either data displaying the gap between white and black/Latino incomes growing (as white incomes grew and black/Latino incomes declined) or data showing the gap shrinking (as white incomes fell and black/Latino incomes rose). They were then also randomly given information about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and unemployment insurance, and told that one of the programs mostly benefited black/Latino Americans and one mostly benefited whites; which program got which racial description was randomized. Then respondents were asked for their thoughts on various government programs, including TANF and unemployment insurance.

“Whites showed uniquely low support for programs that benefited minorities if they had been told that the white income advantage is closing,” they found. By contrast, information on whether the income gap was closing had no effect on white respondents when they were asked about programs that they were told mostly helped whites.

In addition to the novel experiments, Wetts and Willer analyzed the American National Election Studies from 2000 to 2016 and found that 2008 was a crucial inflection point when racial resentment began to increase among white Americans.

Racism is a major impediment to liberal policymaking

The study builds on the long literature on the role of race in motivating opposition to welfare, but also on some more recent research showing that the threat of white demographic decline can profoundly affect Americans’ political beliefs.

As my colleague Brian Resnick has written, the psychologists Jennifer Richeson (at Yale) and Maureen Craig (now at NYU) have found that being exposed to information about US demographic change leads white people to express less favorable views toward blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. They also found that exposing white Americans to demographic projections predicting a future white minority makes them more conservative, even on seemingly unrelated policies like defense spending and health care. This result holds even for liberal whites; they move right too, albeit from a more left-wing starting point than their conservative peers.

UC Santa Barbara psychologist Brenda Major, her colleague Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich (now of Keep It Public) found in an experimental study published amid the 2016 race that exposing white Americans who identify strongly with their race (that is, whites who are likelier to say their race is “an important reflection of who I am”) to projections that they’ll become a minority by 2042 made them likelier to express support for Donald Trump, whether they were Democrats or Republicans. The finding suggests these phenomena could have electoral effects and confirms the mounting literature finding that racial views of whites were crucial in elevating Trump.

None of these studies are bulletproof, of course. The latest study, for instance, recruited participants through Mechanical Turk, an online Amazon worker recruitment platform that makes it easy to recruit hundreds of people for surveys and other small tasks. Mechanical Turk is an immensely attractive tool for researchers because it makes it cheap and easy to do survey experiments like this, but it has prompted some criticism from social scientists who think it’s being overused.

More broadly, it’s not clear how these dynamics translate into actual elections and, from there, into actual policy. Do headlines about white demographic decline have the same effect in the real world as in the lab? Does that change votes? Do those changes in votes lead to actual welfare cuts? There are a lot of steps in the causal chain to flesh out.

But insofar as the finding that racial animus reduces support for liberal policies holds, that creates a dilemma for anti-racist liberals trying to win over a country that still has a large majority of white voters (this is an especially salient factor in Senate elections, which systematically underrepresent nonwhite Americans).

A model from economists Woojin Lee (Korea University), John Roemer (Yale), and Karine Van Der Straeten (Toulouse School of Economics) explains the dynamic well. Imagine politics as a two-dimensional ideological grid: on the up-down axis are views on race, immigration, and other social/identity issues, with the uppermost point signifying total anti-racism/openness and the opposite point signifying extreme xenophobia and racism.

On the left-right axis are views on economic issues, with the leftmost point signifying total government control and redistribution and the rightmost point anarcho-capitalism. It would look like the well-known “political compass” diagram, only with “authoritarian” replaced with “racist/nationalist” and “libertarian” replaced with “anti-racist/tolerant”:

Political compass diagram Stannered

In most countries, the left parties are higher up on openness/anti-racism and further left on economic intervention than the right parties. So voter racism can hurt them in two ways. It can lead voters to have more right-leaning views on economics because they think minorities are undeserving of public help; this is the effect the above studies confirm. Alternatively, voter racism can leave economic views constant but give voters a reason to vote for the right-leaning party even when they disagree with its economic positions.

So how are left parties to deal with these dynamics? One particularly repugnant answer is to partially abandon their anti-racism, indulge racist sentiment, and consciously court voters with anti-black or anti-Latino animus. Bill Clinton became the first Democrat to win the White House in 12 years after attacking a black rapper for making anti-white comments and very pointedly executing a black man with an intellectual disability to prove his anti-crime bona fides.

Another possible approach is to just reduce the salience of racial issues in national campaigns, perhaps by nominating nonwhite candidates who can afford to spend less time professing their commitment to anti-racist causes (thereby enabling the courting of both nonwhite voters and white voters harboring racial resentments).

In the 2016 election, debates over race and economic anxiety became a kind of ideological proxy battle. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and the left of the Democratic Party favored economic rationales to undercut Trump’s support, while others insisted on a more central role for racial justice, disputing that narrative. That dynamic led racial explanations for Trump’s success to become associated with anti-racism — which served to mask the fact that if the racial explanations are right (and I think they are), one implication is that left parties might need to either deemphasize racial issues or outright court racist voters to win elections.

It’s an absolutely ugly conclusion. But given how powerful the effects of racial animus are, it’s a hard one to avoid.