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The funny thing about diversity is that sometimes it makes things worse. A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU illustrates my point.

Patterns in the Introduction and Passage of Restrictive Voting Bills Are Best Explained by Race, published this week, studies the dynamics behind the recent spate of laws designed to make it harder for people of color to vote. It’s not a small issue. In the past two years, there have been nearly 400 restrict­ive measures introduced in legislatures across the U.S., at least one in every state except Vermont. These kinds of measures include limiting voting hours, removing ballot boxes, eliminating absentee voting options, adding new photo identification requirements, and closing polling locations.

But having a Republican majority alone is not enough to get these types of legislation passed, the study finds.

It turns out that white voters in states with lots of communities of color are more likely to want the kinds of laws that make voting harder and that typically target the poor, the elderly, immigrants, Black, and other people of color who are perceived to be more likely to vote Democratic or advocate for themselves.

“We are not seeing these bills introduced and passed everywhere that Republicans have control; rather, they are most prevalent in states where they have control and where there are significant non-white populations,” says researcher Kevin Morris in an email. “Similarly, it is not just that Republican-leaning legislative districts are represented by lawmakers who sponsor these bills.”

This conclusion is drawn, in part, from answers found within a very broad voter survey that seeks to measure something called “racial resentment.” The concept was developed by political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders three decades ago in an attempt to understand what white Americans believe about Black Americans and how that informs their politics.

In this case, the higher the resentment scores, the more likely white voters are to think barriers to voting are a good idea.

It’s a mix of history, opportunity, and fundamental attribution error.

“[Racial resentment] is based on respondents’ answers to questions about how much they attribute socioeconomic disparities between Black and white Americans to slavery and racial discrimination or to a lack of hard work and perseverance by Black Americans,” says Brennan Center’s Theodore R. Johnson, author of When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America. “The more an individual agrees with the general sentiment that Black people’s lack of effort is the primary reason for racial disparities, the higher that individual’s racial resentment score. And study after study has shown that people who voted for Donald Trump had higher levels of racial resentment than those who did not.”

From the Brennan Center study:

  • Representatives from the whitest districts in the most racially diverse states were the most likely to sponsor anti-voter bills.
  • Districts with higher racial resentment were more likely to be represented by lawmakers who sponsored restrictive bills.
  • Predominantly white states were unlikely to introduce or pass restrictive provisions, regardless of which party controlled the legislature.
  • Racially diverse states controlled by Republicans were far more likely to introduce and pass restrictive provisions. 

As you’ve probably guessed, this is not really a get-out-the-vote essay, though we can’t expect a functioning democracy if everyone cannot participate.

But it is a reminder that white resentment, triggered by fear of demographic change, is not new. It’s also an increasingly dangerous part of our lives, linked to the “great replacement theory” fueled racist massacres, like the one at a supermarket in Buffalo (2022), a synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), and a historic Black church in Charleston (2015).

So, while we focus on how white resentment plays out in the public square, it’s also time to ask, again, how growing feelings of resentment may be de-railing inclusion initiatives at work.

Way back in 2017, I spoke with Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard. He had co-conducted research showing that most bias mitigation efforts are doomed, and white resistance was clearly the elephant in the room.  “It always seemed crazy to me that people thought that you could put people in two hours of diversity training and change their behavior,” he told me. “And when you talk to people after they get out of diversity training, often they’re angry and feel like they’re being treated like bigots. It just never seemed to me that that was a likely way to change the world.”

And one group of inclusion professionals I’ve spoken with in the past few months self-report being ignored and exhausted. In response to a poll by Deloitte, they also identified one attitude inside their organization as the chief barrier to their work, or as I like to think about it, the “great replacement” in the org chart: “Advancing certain groups of professionals will mean fewer opportunities for others.”

I’ve got more reporting coming on equity in voting, specifically groundbreaking work the NAACP is doing to “map the movement” for justice. But if feelings of racial resentment persist, what elements of inclusion work are working? Necessary? Not working?

Let me know what you’re seeing, feeling, thinking, or working on; subject line: Resentment. (Trust me, it will get my attention.

Wishing you a fulfilling and meaningful weekend.

Ellen McGirt


This content was originally published here.

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