Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful new article for The Atlantic revolves around his conversations with President Obama, discussions that bring up many thought-provoking ideas. Among these is Obama’s brilliant reflection on the racial resentment that undergirds anti-government sentiment among many white Republicans:
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 here is that, for a significant group of white Republicans, opposition to federal programs derives less from principle than from notions of racial exclusivism. As vociferously as white Republicans will deny it, the racist origins of anti-government sentiment in America have long been well known to researchers. Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between racial resentment and opposition to government services, spending, and welfare, a trend epitomized by the chart below.
None of this is to say that racism is the sole explanation for conservative opposition to “big government,” and that is not what Obama said either. Indeed he told Coates that he believes there is a genuine bedrock of conservative principles guiding much of the Republican Party, a belief in the fundamental humanity and beneficent intentions of the other side that most Republican leaders can hardly be said to share. We as a nation, however, would do well to acknowledge the irrefutable correlation between racism and “fiscal conservatism,” and millions of embittered conservatives across the nation would do well to ponder the true sources of their resentment.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.