02/15/2012 10:10 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Mayweather's Racial Resentment Reflects America's Thinking About Race

This week, professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., tweeted on the success of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, proclaiming "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." Mayweather may or may not be factually correct, but his comments reflect the deeper motivation for the pronouncement.

Mayweather's narrative about Lin does not reflect racism or hatred, rather it reflects racial resentment. There is no evidence that Mayweather hates Asian Americans or believes that they are an inferior race, but it is clear that Mayweather resents the attention Lin has received because he is Asian American relative to African Americans. In fact, Mayweather claimed to speak for "other NBA players," and justify his actions as no different from ESPN's offering of opinions.

This behavior closely resembles racial resentment, and ironically, the foundation of contemporary racial attitudes toward African Americans as well.

Resentment is a very basic moral sentiment. Resentment is anger toward, or a feeling of indignant displeasure at, some perceived wrong; often arising from emotionally disturbing experiences occurring over and over again, or relived in one's mind. Resentment shows itself most vehemently when individuals perceive others have been advantaged by violating norms and cultural expectations centered on justice and fairness.

Applying this to race, racial resentment will encompass levels of anger, bitterness, or concern related beliefs about the deservingness of special considerations on the basis of race. Ostensibly, "special considerations" and attention for one group but not another violate norms of fairness and expectations about who should get what in society. Thus, the racially resentful person is easily offended by racial celebration and other racial justifications for special consideration, because he or she believes they are unfounded or unfair. As a result, any attempts to present race as a rationale for social problems, inequality, or celebration are invalid. In short, racial resentment toward racial groups results from an irritation over the use of race as a justification for societal benefits, and it does NOT require that one group dislike another.

Mayweather thought it was unfair that Lin has received celebratory attention, but not because of Lin's basketball "merits" rather it was because of Lin's race. Had Lin been African American -- shared group membership -- Mayweather would clearly have no basis for his racialized resentments. Ironically, this situation is a teachable moment, particularly for those who believe that race is not still a part of American political judgments and decision-making.

Every race related comment is not racist or an expression of "racism." Racialized thinking can range from open hostility -- what some call "old-fashioned racism" -- to color-blind passivity -- what some would call "racial ambivalence." While we'd all like to think we make judgments and decisions that are void of racial thinking, experts know this is practically impossible. We have implicit (unconscious) attitudes which drive our behavior, just as we have conscious ones. The difference is that the conscious ones are much more controllable; that is, unless we're fatigued, highly emotional, distracted, or intoxicated, all of which make it harder for us to conceal our true feelings.

The point is that Mayweather's comments are reflective of a society still entrenched in racialized, but perhaps not "racist" thinking. The prototypical racist is one who hates others because their skin color (or heritage) denotes an inherent social and biological inferiority. While these types of racists still exist, they are in the extreme minority.

The larger proportions of persons are racially resentful; they resent the differentiated celebration of race, and any claims of special considerations on the basis of race. This would include giving special attention to events like Black history month, the election of the "first African American" president, or the accomplishments of the "first Asian American born" basketball star. These resentments also extend to policies that deal with the specific problem of race, including diversity programs, so-called "affirmative action" programs, and any other efforts to give race a "special consideration" or "special advantage" in society.

While many Whites legitimately feel race is an unnecessary cause for celebration or special consideration, it is also true that such feelings reflect racial resentment. Also, while many African Americans and Hispanics legitimately feel Whites have received unearned benefits of the doubt when dealing with the criminal justice system, it is also true that such feelings reflect racialized resentments. And, ironically, the source of the resentment is the same: a perception of undeserved advantages.

There is near unanimous agreement that racial discrimination and prejudice are morally wrong, and therefore any appearance of bigotry, is often dismissed as having nothing to do with racialized intent. But we would be naïve to think that we are in a post-racial society. A "post-racist" (not racial) society is an admirable goal, but one should ask why we would even desire a post-racial society, as if multiple cultures, racial-ethnic backgrounds, and other differences can't be celebrated and appreciated simultaneously. If sportsmanship can exist, and be mandated, in athletics, then tolerance -- which is not the absence of negative attitudes -- should be able to exist in broader group politics.

Today, racial resentment stands as the primary driver of racial discrimination and prejudice in American society. It is the debt of over 300 years of racial and ethnic divisions, which has produced and maintained residential, educational, religious, and social segregation; and a social order where we see the world as "us" and "them." While research shows resentment exists among Whites more than other groups, as Mayweather's comments show, it is not limited to Whites. Resentment is a sentiment that none of us can control, but we can at least acknowledge it and understand its source. That is, if, and only if we're motivated to do so.

Prologue: For those who think this essay wrongly picks on issue of race, simply imagine the following situations. A "cheater" succeeds and is celebrated, but a person who follows the rules gets no recognition. You stand/sit in a long line, while a few others sneak in to gain immediate access and cheer their act (especially on a highway exit ramp or congested merge lane). A new worker is praised for their few accomplishments, while the 20 year reliable veteran is ignored. These are a few examples of situations that can prime feelings of resentment. In each case, someone has gained an unearned and celebrated advantage over another. Racialized resentment is just another case of this same concept.