Polling Prejudice: Public opinion on race is often inconsistent. Does political science have the tools to capture all forms of racism?
By Taeku Lee
In the past 70 years, there has been a tide shift in the publicly shared attitudes of white Americans toward African Americans. Some of the earliest public-opinion polls in the 1940s found that an overwhelming majority (about two-thirds) of whites were willing to support segregated schools. By the mid-1990s (the last time questions on school segregation were asked), only one out of every 25 whites held to the same view. Similarly, on interracial couples, polls from the late-1950s and early-1960s found nearly universal disapproval among white Americans; by the 1990s, only a small fraction of whites favored anti-miscegenation laws and a majority actively indicated their support of interracial marriages. Over an even shorter time period, the prevalence of invidious stereotypes of African Americans as less intelligent and less industrious than whites declined between the early-1990s and the mid-2000s.
Still, other viewpoints about race have been remarkably resistant to change and, in some cases, moved toward greater intolerance and assent to inequalities. Thus, the majoritarian shift toward principles of racial equality has been accompanied by ambiguity in support for the implementation of those principles in federal employment, education, and housing policy. In the area of schools and jobs, in particular, white Americans' endorsement that the federal government should "see to it" that African Americans are treated equally has, in fact, declined to a minority view (roughly one in three), a trend that may reflect both the increasing opposition to government activism and a growing sense of racial apathy and "sympathy fatigue." More pointedly, white support for affirmative-action policies (when framed as giving "special" or "preferential" treatment to African Americans) has remained low through more than two decades of polling.
Political scientists have come to understand this paradox between support for racially egalitarian principles and opposition to racially egalitarian policies through different explanations.
One point of view, most commonly ascribed to Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman, is that there is no paradox but rather a selective (if injudicious) application of competing political values. By this view, Americans prize an abstract commitment to egalitarianism, but this is not the only political value they hold. Many Americans also believe in limited government and individual self-reliance -- and distinguish between equality of opportunities and equality of material outcomes. Thus, objections to affirmative action or housing desegregation or health-care reform or even the Obama presidency might simply reflect different levels of commitment among a range of entirely legitimate political values, not any form of racism.
A second point of view is that "old -- fashioned," or "Jim Crow," racism has died, only to be replaced by an insidious racial politesse. David Sears and Donald Kinder, political scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Michigan, respectively, argue that the overtly racist and stereotypical views have given way to other equally deep-rooted manifestations of resentment toward minority groups. This prejudice is symbolic in form and inextricably attached to allegedly "nonracial" political values like norms of individualism and self-reliance. Scholars have demonstrated in multiple polls that large numbers of whites agree with such statements as, "Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors," and "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites." These views are, in turn, predictive of opposition to racially egalitarian public policies and electoral support for minority candidates.
The third view, articulated by Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo, is that these updated modes of racial prejudice begin with a firm belief that access to opportunity is equal between races. The result of this premise is that racial inequalities must therefore be due to the cultural deficits of disadvantaged groups, and government, as a further consequence, has no role to play in remedying inequalities. In effect, this "laissez-faire racism" is a willful (even if well-intended) form of colorblindness in which the existence of legal sanctions against discrimination obscures the real hardships and injustices that Americans of color still face.
Consistent polling shows that a high proportion of whites believe that African Americans (and other racial minorities) no longer face significant discrimination or barriers to equal opportunity. Perhaps the most poignant recent example is the Rashomon-like chasm between African Americans and whites in the aftermath of the federal government's criminally lead-footed response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While 84 percent of African Americans felt that the government's response would have been faster if those stranded in New Orleans had been white, only 20 percent of whites agreed.
How should political scientists adjudicate between these conclusions offered by the polling data -- a staunchly principled public and a stubbornly resentful and colorblind public? Increasingly, our field is looking beyond the data about what Americans expressly say on matters of race and turn to what we don't say, what we don't know we are saying, or, in some instances, what we don't even think to say.
One line of research uses experiments embedded in surveys to uncover what happens when we trigger respondents with racial cues. Merely mentioning affirmative action in a poll, for example, leads whites to be much likelier to attach negative racial stereotypes to African Americans than not mentioning the policy at all.
Perhaps the most promising research examines implicit associations made when a respondent is asked to pair two items (typically, values between "good" or "bad" with "white" or "black" names and faces). These tests show that white respondents are usually able to pair "good" with "white" and "bad" with "black" much more quickly than they are able to make the inverse pairing. These milliseconds of difference in reaction -- time preference for one's own racial group can predict a greater likelihood of being politically conservative, of opposing health-care reform, and of antipathy to President Barack Obama.
One conclusion we can draw from these results is that using polls to measure racial attitudes is increasingly outmoded. In an allegedly "post-racial" era where George W. Bush claims that the worst moment of his presidency occurred when Kanye West accused him of not caring about black people, and even candidate Barack Obama finds trouble for commenting on how small-town Pennsylvanians "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them," Americans of any stripe are unlikely to admit to prejudice in polls. Yet all of us -- even minorities -- are susceptible to subtle racial cues. To more honestly understand whether, when, and how racial considerations infect our politics, we must embrace new ways of investigating public opinion.
Taeku Lee is the chair of the political science department at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights Era and Why Americans Don't Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure (of Political Parties) to Engage the Electorate.