Emmitt Y. Riley, III is a political scientist, author, political consultant, and Assistant Professor and Director of Africana Studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Together with co-author Professor Clarissa Peterson, Dr. Riley recently published I Can’t Breathe: Assessing the Role of Racial Resentment and Racial Prejudice in Whites’ Feelings toward Black Lives Matter in UC Press’s journal National Review of Black Politics, the official journal of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
UC Press: Thank you for taking the time to discuss this important new work with us!
EYR: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my work.
UC Press: In your article, you discuss the Black Lives Matter social movement and what effect protests are having on people’s attitudes—and especially on white people’s attitudes—toward Black Lives Matter specifically, and on racial justice more generally. First off, what is racial resentment, and how is it different from “old-fashioned racism?”
EYR: Racial Resentment is a framework for understanding white racial attitudes and how these attitudes influence political decision-making in terms of support for specific policies, candidates, and how candidates are evaluated. Racial Resentment is a more subtle form of racism that hides in the belief that Black people violate American work ethics. Racial Resentment is predicated on the idea that Black people’s social and political status results from Blacks being lazy and not any systemic issues. After the Civil Rights Movement, it was no longer socially acceptable for Whites to openly use racist language, so racism shifted to a more subtle form known as racial resentment. Racial Resentment is typically measured in themes such as the denial of continued discrimination, Blacks need to work harder, and Black people have received undeserved advantages. This line of reasoning fundamentally ignores how generations of slavery and inequality have created systemic inequality within Black communities at the government’s behest. Old-fashioned racism, on the other hand, is the idea that Blacks are born inferior to whites. It shows up in the belief that Blacks and Whites should not be allowed to marry. It shows up in explicit uses of the N-word. Racial Resentment reveals that white people moved away from the overt forms of racial prejudice to a more complicated and more easily masked form known as racial resentment.
UC Press: You talk about how racial resentment is a more significant determinant of attitudes towards Black Lives Matter than prejudice is. Is racial resentment rising?
EYR: The empirical work on racial resentment does show that racial resentment is on the rise and has spilled over into several political considerations that are not even related to racial issues. For example, whites’ attitudes about the American Affordable Healthcare Act, First Lady Michele Obama, and support for Donald Trump are all linked to white racial resentment. Donald Trump has undoubtedly primed racial hostility, and as a result, these attitudes are becoming more cemented into whites’ political decision-making. Even though Donald Trump did not win reelection, more than 74 million Americans voted for him, and with the recent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, racial resentment as a predictor of political choices will only continue.
UC Press: How have Black Lives Matter and its related protests affected attitudes toward racial justice? And are we seeing any backlash?
EYR: Much of the descriptive data suggest that Whites’ attitudes towards Black Lives Matter have improved since the murder of Michael Brown; however, what we demonstrate in our article is that support for the movement is linked to racial hatred and predispositions. This finding, taken with the fact that racial resentment has increased, a president that consistently stokes racial hatred, and recent racial unrest can lead to increased racial resentment, which can lead to a decrease in white support for the BLM Movement. We are indeed witnessing backlash. The U.S. has been experiencing backlash since Obama’s elevation to the presidency. We’ve seen this backlash in the forms of increased police violence against black people, unprecedented opposition against Obama’s agenda, increases in white terrorism, and even the rise of a white supremacist president. The recent protests in the major cities in the United States and abroad indicate a willingness for others, whites in particular, to express their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are concerned, however, that these protests will not lead to real systemic change.
UC Press: You note that, sadly, just having the word “Black” in the name of a social movement “creates a hurdle for white support.” Aside from renaming, are there any recommendations you would give to these movements to help them more successfully move public attitudes?
EYR: Movements that center on providing racial justice for Black people must always be unapologetically Black. In our work, we articulate that we must realize the limits of white support in a highly racialized environment, specifically if such approval is conditional on factors such as racial resentment.
UC Press: Are there any initial indications from the recent 2020 Presidential elections that could further inform our understanding of how racial justice social movements affect political attitudes? What future research would you like to see conducted?
EYR: The 2020 Presidential election has provided us with much to investigate concerning racial resentment and white racial attitudes generally. Scholars must further investigate how white racial identity is linked to racial resentment and its continued influence on white political behavior. Scholars must also examine the emergence of these attitudes among racial and ethnic minorities.
UC Press: Thank you for these insights!
National Review of Black Politics is a refereed, international, and interdisciplinary quarterly journal of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, continuing the scholarly legacy of National Political Science Review, which had been published continually from 1989-2019. NRBP publishes exceptional quality scholarship related to the experiences of African-Americans in the American political community, the African diaspora in the Western Hemisphere, and on questions of black politics and the politics of race-making globally. It focuses on the international links between African-Americans and the larger community of nations, particularly with Africa.