White Cops: The Height of Racial Resentment

While decades of sociological research betray the general sentiments of many white citizens, white law enforcement officers continue to maintain even more racially resentful and racially conservative sets of beliefs than white citizens writ large.

Researchers will surely continue to plow the 2016 U.S. presidential election looking for answers to Donald Trump’s victory for decades to come. What we know now, though, is that racial resentment played a prominent role in the equation. Michael Tesler has shown, for instance, that white racial resentment “was more tightly linked to [support for Trump] than support for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively — even after controlling for party and ideology.” And Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel have found that “racial attitudes towards blacks and immigration are the key factors associated with support for Trump.”

If white voters are racially resentful and if their resentments remain consequential for their selections at the ballot box, we might wish to understand who among the white population in the U.S. evinces the most racially resentful and racially conservative attitudes and why. Some recent sociological work has examined this question and found at least one primary suspect: white police officers.

White individuals throughout the country continue to compose a large share of law enforcement positions. They also continue to murder unarmed black citizens at a disproportionate rate as well. Yet, despite these instances, 70% of whites believe those police departments do an excellent/good job holding police officers accountable when they engage in misconduct, compared with 31% of blacks; 75% of whites believe those police officers do an excellent/good of treating racial and ethnic minorities equally, compared with 35% of blacks; and, finally, 44% of whites believe that blacks’ fatal encounters with police are isolated incidents, compared with 18% of blacks.

While decades of sociological research betray the general sentiments of many white citizens, white law enforcement officers continue to maintain even more racially resentful and racially conservative sets of beliefs than white citizens writ large. Racial resentment is indeed a bit different than outright racist views, but only a permutation of them.

In new research published by sociology professor Ryan LeCount, racial resentment is simply understood as the belief that black citizens are “unfairly advantaged relative to whites.” In his research, LeCount examined the extent of racial resentment among white police officers in comparison with white citizens, in addition to the extent to which white police officers minimize racism, oppose race-targeted programs, and possess racist views.

Altogether, LeCount finds that white police officers indeed possess more racially conservative views than white citizens. For instance, white police are nine times more likely than their white citizen counterparts to believe that black citizens are more violent than white citizens, and they are over three times more likely to agree with the phrase: “I resent any special considerations that Africans Americans receive because it’s unfair to other Americans.” White officers are also 1.4 times more likely to agree that the government is spending too much money on black citizens, and nearly twice as likely to say that racial discrimination is not an obstacle to black citizens’ success. And, finally, white cops are 1.4 times more likely to believe that affirmative action programs hurt white citizens, and they are three times more likely to say that the white citizens experience racial discrimination in the workplace.

Of course, some might argue that the institutional culture of the law enforcement profession might uniquely produce racist beliefs among its occupants. LeCount, however, also examined black police officers’ views compared with black citizens’ general views, and he found nearly no significant differences between black officers and black citizens. In only one instance, LeCount found a difference, and, in that instance, he found that black officers were actually less likely than black citizens to agree with the statement: “Blacks should work their way up without special favors.”

What this might indicate is that many white police officers are entering police academies with existing racial resentments and racist sentiments. And this is frightening. The view that black citizens are more violent, a feeling of resentment towards black citizens in general, and a feeling that whites are discriminated against throughout society might understandably have serious repercussions for how white officers surveil and discipline black citizens compared with their white counterparts, whose alleged plight they sympathize with over and against black citizens. And these repercussions are clear. We know that officers are much more likely to search and arrest black citizens for drugs, despite similar rates of drug use by black and white citizens, and we know that officers are much more likely to murder black citizens.

Police officers indeed undergo a battery of psychological examinations. However, one thing is for certain – they’re not working to weed out racist cops that target, harass, and extra-judicially execute black citizens.

Top photo | Members of the Baltimore Police Department stand guard outside the department’s Western District police station during a protest in response to Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Timothy M. Gill is an Assistant Professor in the Department Sociology and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.


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