Racial Reparations aim to close the wealth gap between minorities and the rest of the population, that stems from slavery and the systematic injustices that followed. However, many European Americans reject supporting such policies. I aim to argue that racial reparations are contributing to a perceived status threat among white Americans, thus fostering this opposition. Consequently, the perceived status threat is influencing voting preferences of these white Americans and their willingness to be swayed by dangerous demagogues’ emotionally driven rhetoric.
The Need for Racial Reparations
The first slave landed in America over 400 years ago. The gruesome, unpaid servitude of Africans lasted nearly 250 years. Enslaved individuals built the backbone of the economic powerhouse that is modern-day America, yet they never acquired any of the welfare attained during this period of time. Instead, former slaves and their descendants were left to work in inhumane conditions at private railways, mines and large plantations (Blow, 2019). Ergo, there has been a significant wealth gap between people of color and their white counterparts.
A lingering question is how to best atone for the racist past of America, which is where the notion of reparations inaugurates. Federal reparations would grant descendants of slaves reparations for the centuries of inequality and lasting systematic disadvantages placed on black minorities in America, through housing grants and economic development programs.
Perceived Status Threat
Many white Americans are opposing the idea of reparations, deeming them “unconstitutional” and “racially discriminatory” (Heyward, 2021). I argue that much of this resistance stems from perceived status threat. White Americans who are accustomed toward being the dominant race, are fearing a shift in the social hierarchy (Mutz, 2018). Growing domestic racial diversity contributes to the dominant group status threat. The white man, once defined by the in-group, is becoming “left behind.” The larger the size of the out-group, the more the in-group feels threatened, resulting in negative attitudes towards the “other.” White Americans feel threatened because they are being told that they will soon become a minority race.
Many of these white Americans identify with more traditionalist values. Hochschild (2016), describes their feeling as being strangers in their own home, because they do not feel as though they are being respected for their beliefs and cultural values. He gives further insight into the reasoning behind the traditionalist individuals’ opposition towards redistributive policies, through the idea of the “deep story.” “Deep stories” are the root of an individual, their identity, and value systems. For many white Americans, this “deep story” is the “American Dream.” They have grown up believing if they work hard enough, financial security will come. When they see minorities receiving financial benefits like reparations, they feel as though these individuals are “line-cutters,” and do not understand the concept of hard work.
The Impact on Citizens’ Voting Preferences
The Democratic party leads the support for racial reparations. It is this side of the partisan that also offers redistributive plans to help many of the lower income conservative white Americans illustrated above. However, these individuals continuously vote in favor of the radical right and against their material self interest. Much of this can be attributed to the growing population of immigrants in the United States. Not only does this cause a perceived status threat, but many of these immigrants gather toward the Democratic party. In turn, partisanship has become more of a social identity (Conover, 2015). The fear instilled in white Americans causes them to fall prey to the emotionally driven rhetoric offered by dangerous demagogues in the radical right. They are swayed by the longing to maintain their dominant social identity by eliminating redistributive policies like racial reparations.
Falling Prey to Dangerous Demagoguery Rhetoric
Rhetoric is a communication tool that politicians use to appeal to their intended audience. Dangerous demagogues utilize specific rhetorical strategies to manipulate their followers. According to Mercieca (2019), a key indicator of dangerous demagoguery communication is lack of accountability and polarizing rhetoric. They appeal to the emotional interests of their following without stating affirmative future plans. They have an element of immorality in their speech, only aiming to benefit themselves. With that in mind, I aim to examine Senator Mitch McConnell’s response, as reporting in the New York Times (Blow, 2019), to the reparation:
I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery… We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that… I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.”
McConnell’s rhetoric is immoral and utilizes the dangerous demagoguery communication tactics. Senator Mitch McConnell clearly denies accountability and does not speak in terms of future action. In his response, McConell audibly appeals to the emotions of his white following by ensuring no reparations will be done, and that the “line cutters” will not get ahead. Ultimately, white Americans will fall prey to his emotionally driven speech because reparations contribute to their perceived status threat and core value systems. Dangerous demagogues parallel populist leaders, who are a direct threat to our democracy.
The main point of potential criticism that I foresee is the argument that slavery was in our past, and that racism is no longer prevelant, thus delegitimizing the need to implement reparations. This is an extension of the response Senator Mitch McConell made about implementing reparation policies. To that, I invite you to consider the contrast between older racism, and newer, more subtle forms of racism that are still heavily ingrained into our society as illustrated by Hochschild (2016). Old fashioned racism is overtly relegating a category of individuals as being inferior and at the bottom of the hierarchy, while consequently placing yourself on top. However, modern racism takes form more subtly, by using rhetoric that illustrates minorities as threatening and uses them as scapegoats. In our current America, the average white family makes roughly ten times more than the average black family (McIntosh et al., 2020). Racism still exists, and it is time to atone for the sins of America.
Blow, C. M. (2019, June 20). Opinion | reparations: Reasonable and right. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/opinion/reparations-reasonable-and-right.html
Heyward, G. (2021, September 25). Reparations for black residents are becoming a local issue as well as a national one. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/25/us/reparations-african-americans-usa.html
Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Strangers in their own land : Anger and mourning on the American right. The New Press.
McIntosh, K., Moss, E., Nunn, R., & Shambaugh, J. (2020, February 27). Examining the black-white wealth gap. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/
Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous demagogues and weaponized communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49(3), 264–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640
Miller, P. R., & Conover, P. J. (2015). Red and blue states of mind. Political Research Quarterly, 68(2), 225–239. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912915577208
Mutz, D. C. (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(19), E4330–E4339. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1718155115
I enjoyed your article! Love that consideration for reparation based policy has increased in recent years. I think it’s interesting that Mitch McConnell presents the election of one black president as proof that the institutions of racism and slavery have been fully dismantled. While it’s true that no one alive in the present is responsible for the “original sin of slavery,” he neglects to discuss how white people alive in the present continue to benefit from this original sin while black people continue to suffer from it. It’s not something that exists solely in the past. Reparations offers an economic (not total) solution to the lost generational wealth and privileges that have eluded black people. It’s also more possible that we believe it to be: we have had a widespread distribution of reparations after WWII after Japanese Americans were wrongfully forced into internment camps, and while paying off an unpayable debt of slavery would be significantly more costly, one can always start somewhere.