Racial Resentment Varies Widely Among Religious Groups

Demonstrators gather at a rally to peacefully protest and demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality on June 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Measuring people’s true attitudes toward racial issues on surveys has long been one of the most difficult problems that social scientists face. However, in the last few decades scholars have developed methods that have helped us make progress in understanding the subtle ways that racist views not only persist but bubble to the surface in American society.

One of those has become known among researchers as racial resentment. Usually posed as a set of four questions, the racial resentment series presents the following statements — which some of us might recognize from discussions over the Thanksgiving table — and asks for respondents’ reactions, ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”:

  1. Irish, Italians, Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  2. It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
  3. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
  4. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.

Agreeing with statements 1 and 2 earns a respondent 1 point each. Disagreeing with statements 3 and 4 gains them another 1 point each. When added together it creates an index of resentment running from zero (no resentment) to 4.

“Distribution of Racial Resentment Scores” Graphic by Ryan Burge

Using this method, a survey taken in November 2018 showed that the distribution of racial resentment across American religious traditions varies widely. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those who belong to historically black denominations scored lower than those that were predominantly white. Buddhists and Jews were the only nonblack faith group for whom a majority of adherents had scores of zero.

But more than 60% of white evangelical Christians scored a 3 or 4 on the scale, as did half of white Catholics.

One significant outlier was atheists: Despite the fact that three-quarters of nonbelievers are white, 70.6% of them scored a zero on the scale.

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Source: Religion News Service