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Obama: if you were fine with big government until it served black people, rethink your biases

The president speaks at length about race with Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic.

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Andrew Harrer/Pool via Getty Images

Here’s some real talk from President Barack Obama, taken from his conversations with Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic:

I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race. But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the GI Bill, and didn’t have a problem with the [Federal Housing Administration] subsidizing the suburbanization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class — and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them — then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama’s basic argument: If you didn’t have a problem with big federal government services until black and brown people began clearly to benefit from them, maybe it’s time to rethink your biases.

This isn’t a straw man drawn up from nowhere. When sociologist Arlie Hochschild went to the Deep South to, as she has called it, “scale the empathy wall” and understand Tea Party voters for her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, this was a theme that popped up again and again. Many of the Tea Party voters she talked to didn’t mind using government services for themselves. (As one man told Hochschild, “If the programs are there, why not use them?”) But when it came to other people getting government services — with heavy racial undertones implied — it was seen more as the government taking the hard-working person’s tax money and giving it to the undeserving.

Hochschild provided an apt analogy — what she called a “deep story” — for the driving sentiment behind this belief: As many white, rural Tea Party Americans see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, other groups — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and especially federal policies.

Indeed, studies have found that a key predictor for support of government services, spending, and welfare is racial resentment. This chart by researcher Jason McDaniel shows, for example, that people’s racial resentment is a key driver behind opposition to federal aid to the poor:

A chart that shows that levels of racial resentment align with opposition to federal aid for the poor.

This doesn’t mean that all opposition to government spending is driven by racism. Obama told Coates that he believes there is a strong bedrock of genuine conservative principles behind much of the Republican Party. And there are economic, budgetary, and philosophical arguments against how economic and entitlement programs work today.

But Obama is right that a big factor seems to be race — and that should lead at least some people to reconsider why they feel a certain way.

Read the full piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates on his conversations with the president.

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