Could this summer’s protests against racism and police violence lead to a backlash by white voters in November? Since the 1960s, U.S. discourse on protest has often focused on backlash—the idea that movements for the civil rights of minorities like Black or LGBTQ people will cause the majority demographic groups to push in the opposite direction.
In a 1965 issue of American Speech, Felice A. Stern reported that the word “backlash” started appearing in U.S. publications early in the 1964 presidential cycle. Often, it showed up in articles about the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace. In September 1964, an article in Look explained that political commentators borrowed it from sports fishing, where “backlash” refers to a lure swinging back toward the angler, tangling the line.
“Transferred to the world of politics, the white backlash aptly describes the resentment of many white Americans to the speed of the great Negro revolution, which has been gathering momentum since the first rash of sit-ins in early 1960,” Look explained.
But as S.J. Sackett wrote in the same issue of American Speech, there was at least some criticism of the term. During the Democratic Convention in August, Dr. Aaron Henry, chairman of the Mississippi Freedom delegation, objected to a media question about a “white backlash.” Since the majority of white voters in Mississippi had never supported equal rights for Black citizens, he said, it should be called a “forward lash.”
“Forward lash” didn’t really stick. But, more than fifty years later, “backlash” is still going strong. However, it’s not actually clear that it’s a real thing, as political scientists Benjamin G. Bishin, Thomas J. Hayes, Matthew B. Incantalupo, and Charles Anthony Smith find.
In 2013, Bishin and his colleagues went looking for backlash in public opinion about LGBTQ rights in light of political decisions permitting same-sex marriage. They looked at what happened when study participants heard about the political advance of same-sex marriage rights. They also used the natural experiment created by pro-same-sex marriage Supreme Court rulings in the summer of 2013. They found no significant differences in participants’ opinions about same-sex marriage, or the intensity of those opinions, in the face of victories for LGBTQ rights. Looking at national public opinion polling, they found the same thing—major victories for same-sex marriage had no apparent impact on attitudes toward gay rights.
If, as the political scientists’ research suggests, backlash in public opinion isn’t really a thing, why do we talk about it so much? Bishin and his colleagues write that observers may assume that anti-minority political actions represent a backlash against civil rights victories, even if they would have occurred anyway.
“That is, opinion backlash may mistakenly be used to describe existing negative opinion rather than opinion change in response to a salient event,” they write.
So Dr. Henry might have been right. Perhaps we should think of political opposition to same-sex marriage or anti-racist politics as a forward lash.
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