The Racial Wealth Gap and Conservative Denial

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the racial wealth gap? How does the denial of the racial wealth gap inform the beliefs of conservatives and the Tea Party?

There is statistical evidence to suggest the existence of the racial wealth gap. However, Tea Party conservatives cite wealthy Black celebrities as evidence that there is no black wealth gap and falsely claim that Black people are getting ahead while whites are losing their status.

Read more about the racial wealth gap and what it means for conservative politics.

Conservative Beliefs About the Racial Wealth Gap

Although they deny harboring any personal racial animosity toward minorities, many Tea Party attitudes toward government redistribution programs are racially tinged. This includes their denial of the black wealth gap.

In her conversations with conservative Louisianans, Hochschild observes that, despite their professed innocence on racial matters, Tea Partiers do believe in a racial hierarchy—one in which white people (and white men, in particular) belong at the top. Their resentment at the “line cutting” phenomenon stems from their belief that this rightful position has been unfairly usurped. They see a media landscape that celebrates the glamorous lives and exploits of Black celebrities like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Serena Williams, while ignoring (when not downright denigrating) white working-class people.

The figure of former President Barack Obama looms large in the racially inflected Tea Party narrative of unfair advantage. They see the first African-American president as the line-cutter-in-chief, gleefully waving ahead the other non-white line cutters in his political coalition through his liberal tax-and-spend programs.

To Tea Partiers in Louisiana, Obama prioritized the takers over the makers (we discussed the “makers and takers” trope in Chapter 2). 

These themes are amplified by conservative media like talk radio and Fox News, which focus on supposed “welfare queens” living a glamorous lifestyle on the government dime. This further contributes to the feelings of diminished honor. People on the right believe themselves to be suckers for working hard for a living, while others are enjoying the luxurious benefits of government largesse.

They proclaim “sympathy fatigue” when they hear about the supposed plight of immigrants and minorities. For them, it is absurd to feel sympathy for people who’ve simply been handed every advantage in life, while they have had to work and struggle for everything—and still find themselves falling behind.

Of course, these views are a distortion of reality, as Hochschild points out. Historically, Black people have been at the back of the proverbial line, being “cut” in front of repeatedly by white people through the institutions of slavery, segregation, lynching, and discrimination, which stole their labor, dignity, and even their lives over the course of centuries. This legacy persists today when we look at the racial wealth gap—on average, Black households earn only 55 percent of what white households earn.

The Racial Wealth Gap and Conservative Denial

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  • What drives right-wing politics in America
  • How a lack of empathy is increasing the partisan divide
  • Why Republican politicians remain popular even if their policies don't help their voters

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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