In a New Paper, Ph.D. Candidate Cody Melcher Shows That Racism and Political Opinion Are Linked to Financial Insecurity

Cody Melcher

By Beth Harpaz

Here’s what motivated Cody Melcher, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, to research the relationship between economic self-interest and public opinion: He was certain that much of what had already been written on the subject was wrong. 

“A significant and influential subset of the public opinion literature in the U.S. argues that economic self-interest is not particularly consequential in determining the social and political attitudes of Americans,” he said. He was sure that “couldn’t possibly be correct,” so he decided to do his own research. 

What he found was that “economic self-interest is, in fact, systematically and strongly related to the attitude formation of Americans.” He’s published articles on the topic in academic journals, most recently in Political Behavior, and is now writing his dissertation on it. 

Of particular interest to Melcher is why white Americans, especially working-class whites, “believe in and do racist things.” One of his most important findings is that “economic insecurity — as a measure of economic self-interest — is strongly related to racial resentment.” Viewing racism as a manifestation of economic insecurity, rather than as ideology disconnected from economic circumstances, is grounded in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and contemporary analysts of race like Stephen Steinberg, Barbara Fields, and others, Melcher says. But the “proposition is rarely tested using quantitative analysis. I see my work as an attempt to fill this gap.”

But what are the implications of this finding? Should progressives, idealists, and politicians give up trying to appeal to our better natures by preaching love, kindness, and tolerance, and focus instead on stimulus checks and basic income guarantees? (And does that mean Andrew Yang has an advantage in New York City’s mayoral race, since he’s the guy with the basic income proposal?)

Melcher answers the question by revealing “one of the best kept secrets in the public opinion world.” Most Americans — 60% to 90% depending on what you’re asking — want to “decrease economic inequality, are more resentful of the wealthy than the poor, and support the creation of a robust welfare state including universal healthcare, employment guarantees, job retraining, an increased minimum wage, increased spending on public education, free childcare, and much else.” 

So why don’t election results and public policies reflect those preferences? “The problem is that few politicians are willing to supply these things in any meaningful way,” Melcher says. And given the complexities of voting, running for office, and the U.S. electoral system, candidates who advocate for a robust welfare state don’t always prevail. 

The other problem is that historically, Americans, particularly white Americans, have pursued “exclusionary strategies” — like limiting immigration and limiting benefits that they incorrectly perceive as exclusively helping nonwhites — in order to shore up their own precarious footholds on the economic ladder. “Economically insecure white Americans — as I show empirically — are much more likely to be xenophobic, score higher on the racial resentment scale, and to perceive race relations in zero-sum terms,” he said. “I argue, following the seminal work of W.E.B. Du Bois, that white supremacy is at least partially grounded in racialized attempts to limit economic competition.” 

Melcher grew up in the Detroit area, where his dad was an airport mechanic. He studied political science and classical civilization at the University of Michigan, and had planned to study classical political philosophy in graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit. But meeting the labor activist Michael Goldfield at Wayne State changed his path. After completing a master’s degree in political science at Wayne State, he enrolled in The Graduate Center’s sociology Ph.D. program, where he refined his interests with mentorship from faculty including Leslie McCall, Mary Clare Lennon, and Charles Post

Melcher already has nine published articles to his name, and he advises other students to “treat every term paper as a rough draft for something you want to eventually submit to a journal.” One of his published pieces was a term paper for a theory class at The Graduate Center, and another grew out of a statistics paper. Even when articles are rejected, if they’ve been sent out for review, “you will receive invaluable feedback on how to make your research publishable from multiple experts.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

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Submitted on: MAR 26, 2021

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