Barack Obama’s presidency has been marked by heated debates about the Republican Party’s racial attitudes. Many liberals have noted the dog whistles —subtle cues that play on stereotypes and may trigger taboo sentiments — employed in Republican attacks on the president. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, famously called Obama a “food stamp president,” former Sen. Rick Santorum accused him of giving welfare to “blah people,” and many conservatives have claimed Obama couldn’t have been born in the United States.
For the most part, the public abhors and condemns such blatant racism. But recent data on public sentiments suggest that many Americans hold beliefs affirming subtler, structural racism and that the popularity of these believes divides sharply along party and political lines.
I began my examination of whether there is a partisan divide on racial issues with the American National Election Studies 2012 survey. The first set of questions I examined measures racial stereotyping, asking respondents whether they believe that black people are “hard-working” or “lazy,” “intelligent” or “unintelligent” and whether they have “too much influence” or “too little influence” in politics — in other words, questions measuring explicitly racist attitudes.
The second set of questions I examined measures what scholars call racial resentment. These questions measure perceptions of the persistence of racial inequality and discrimination by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with these statements:
• Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
• Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
• Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
• 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.
I also looked at responses to the question “How much discrimination do black people face?”,as well as whether respondents support government assistance to African-Americans, including employment protections.
This second group of questions examines issues related to colorblind racism. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes in “Racism Without Racists,” colorblind racism is “racism lite,” in which “instead of proclaiming God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests they are behind because they do not work hard enough.”
Among non-Hispanic whites, there are strong and persistent gaps between Republicans and Democrats, with at least 22-point gaps in opinion on each issue I examined. The deepest divide is on whether blacks should work their way up, as Irish- and Italian-Americans supposedly did, which divided members of the two parties by 30 points.
On racial stereotyping, the gaps are smaller, with only an 8-point gap in the share saying black people are unintelligent, but an 18-point gap in the share saying they are “lazy.” While only 7 percent of Democrats believe that blacks have too much influence over politics, 25 percent of Republicans do. With regard to the government’s role in ameliorating racial inequality, the split was even larger, with 35-point gaps on whether the government should help blacks or blacks should help themselves, and on whether or not it is the government’s job to ensure fair treatment in the workplace.
Examining self-identified conservatives and liberals gives similar results, with gaps of 26 to 38 percentage points on issues related to colorblind racism, gaps averaging 17 points on the stereotyping questions and gaps averaging 40 points on questions about government aid.
In a piece last year, journalists Nate Silver and Allison McCann investigated whether white Republicans were more racist than white Democrats. They focused on questions that examine racial stereotyping, such as whether blacks are lazier or less intelligent than whites and whether a white person would feel comfortable with a close family member marrying a black person. On many of these questions, partisan gaps have disappeared. However, on the question of whether blacks “lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty,” the partisan gap is large: In the 2012 survey, 57 percent of white Republicans and 41 percent of white Democrats agreed.
In 2005, Republicans apologized for the post-1968 Southern strategy of targeting white voters with thinly veiled racial appeals. But a decade later, they haven’t stopped using it.
Silver and McCann concluded that “there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties.” However, assuming Bonilla-Silva is correct that institutional racism is the primary problem today, the questions Silver and McCann used didn’t adequately address the real partisan gaps on race.
My analysis suggests that focusing on stereotyping and other explicitly racist attitudes rather than structural racism obscures much of the differences between how Republicans and Democrats think about race. The two parties are significantly divided on whether entrenched barriers still hamper upward mobility for blacks and whether government should intervene.
That said, we cannot be sanguine about how explicit racial stereotyping influences conservative politics. Those who claim, as economist Alex Tabarrok did before the 2012 election, that “it is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties” are mistaken. In reality, while 23 percent of Democrats say black people are lazy, 41 percent of Republicans do. And among strong Democrats and strong Republicans, the numbers become even more stark, 20 percent compared with 46 percent. Furthermore, 41 percent of whites who say they are extremely conservative believe black people are lazy, compared with 14 percent of whites who say they are extremely liberal. On the question of whether black people are unintelligent, it’s 30 percent for extremely conservative whites versus 11 percent for extremely liberal whites. This clearly suggests that racial animus is more prevalent among conservatives and Republicans.
It also accounts for why debates about race in America are subject to such deep partisan conflict. Since the civil rights movement, Americans have broadly rejected explicit expressions of racism. On the question of black intelligence, the gaps are smallest between the two parties, suggesting that views of inherent black inferiority are rejected across the political spectrum — or are simply too taboo to admit. But on issues of discrimination, the persistence of racism and the importance of history, the parties are sharply divided.
Law professor Ian Haney Lopez argued, “We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms.” He noted that these other forms of racism “are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.”
In 2005, Republicans apologized for the post-1968 Southern strategy of targeting white voters with thinly veiled racial appeals. But a decade later, as the rise of Donald Trump illustrates, they haven’t stopped using it.