Symbolic and Modern Racism

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Symbolic and Modern Racism

SYMBOLIC RACISM INFLUENCES POLITICAL ATTITUDES

SEPARATING SYMBOLIC RACISM FROM OTHER INTERESTS

MEASURING SYMBOLIC RACISM

SYMBOLIC RACISM AND SIMILAR CONSTRUCTS

SEPARATING SYMBOLIC RACISM FROM AUTOMATIC PREJUDICES

CRITICISMS OF SYMBOLIC RACISM

THEFUTURE OF SYMBOLIC RACISM

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Symbolic racism, also known as modern racism, is as of the early 2000s a new expression of prejudice that has developed in the United States. It is based on the belief that blacks violate key American values, particularly the idea of individualism, the belief in working hard to get ahead in life. Perceptions that blacks violate other values (including, for example, morality, self–restraint, and family traditionalism) have been less studied, but they may be important for understanding the range of values invoked in symbolic racism beliefs. The term racism is applicable because the belief that blacks violate cherished values is often strongly associated with negative feelings or antipathy toward blacks, while symbolic highlights the fact that the roots of the symbolic racism belief system are in these abstract, moral values, rather than in concrete self–interest or personal experiences, and because blacks are targeted as an abstract collectivity rather than as specific individuals.

Figure 1 represents the symbolic racism model and demonstrates what are considered the basic antecedents to and consequences of endorsing symbolic racism beliefs. The way symbolic racism is openly expressed is characterized by four specific themes or beliefs: (1) that blacks no longer face much prejudice or discrimination, (2) that the failure of blacks to progress results from their unwillingness

to work hard enough, (3) that blacks are demanding too much too fast, and (4) that blacks have gotten more than they deserve. Endorsement of these beliefs is taken to reflect an endorsement of symbolic racism.

Symbolic racism became a widespread expression of discontent toward blacks by many white Americans after the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. It is thought to have largely replaced previous forms of prejudice, commonly known as “old fashioned,” “redneck,” or “Jim Crow” racism, which are characterized by beliefs in the biological inferiority of blacks, support for segregation of the races, and formal racial discrimination. Symbolic racism replaced these old–fashioned racist beliefs in the sense that old–fashioned racism is no longer very popular and has very little influence in ordinary politics. Although examples of old–fashioned prejudice continue to arise in twenty–first century society (e.g., hate crimes committed against blacks, companies using blatant discriminatory practices), this kind of prejudice is rare compared to the more widespread beliefs found in symbolic racism.

SYMBOLIC RACISM INFLUENCES POLITICAL ATTITUDES

Symbolic racism has a powerful influence on American attitudes toward race–based politics. In particular, research has shown it to be a stronger predictor of racial policy preferences than other constructs. An impressive range of political attitudes are thought to be influenced by symbolic racism, including opposition to liberal racial policies such as affirmative action (programs designed to favor blacks in hiring, promotion, college admission, etc.), busing (the transportation of blacks to wealthier, white communities for racial integration in education), and attitudes toward less explicitly race–based policies that have a disproportionate effect on blacks such as stricter welfare regulations and punitive crime policies.

Symbolic racism also has an important influence on political campaigns, including opposition to black candidates such as Jesse Jackson; support for white candidates perceived as being unsympathetic to blacks, such as George H. W. Bush; or even support for more explicitly racist candidates such as the ethnocentrically oriented Pat Buchanan or the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. When subtle racial appeals are used in campaigns, such as the infamous invocation of the black murderer and rapist Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign, the political force of symbolic racism becomes even stronger.

Symbolic racism may also have played a strong influence on the general political shift from a nation governed by liberal Democrats at the end of World War II to one in which conservative Republicans seemed to have a consistent edge. A central factor in this shift is the conversion of the once Democratic “solid South” of white voters to a predominantly Republican white South. Symbolic racism remains stronger in the white South than elsewhere in the nation, and it has played a stronger role in white Southerners’ voting than elsewhere. It is thus a major factor in causing the South’s political realignment.

SEPARATING SYMBOLIC RACISM FROM OTHER INTERESTS

It is clear that symbolic racism has a major influence in politics, and its influences are thought to be independent of other political constructs, such as personal interests, group interests, and nonracial ideological conservatism. A great deal of research has been devoted to separating symbolic racism from these other constructs.

One key feature of the symbolic racism belief system that distinguishes it from personal interests is that it is rooted in abstract beliefs about groups violating important values that are socialized through one’s parents, peers, and the media. For example, news media depictions of blacks cheating the welfare system are thought to reinforce symbolic racism beliefs that blacks violate the value of individualism or that they do not put forth the necessary efforts to get ahead in life. Emerging research demonstrates that the socialization of symbolic racism beliefs begins as early as adolescence, which is earlier than other political beliefs, and that it continues through the lifespan.

This idea that early–socialized, abstract beliefs influence attitudes toward racial policies is contrary to other theories that suggest attitudes toward race–based policies are driven by personal interests. For example, personal interests would theoretically influence a white individual’s opposition to affirmative action if that person believed that affirmative action interferes with his or her ability to get a job or promotion, or it might influence a white citizen living near a black ghetto to vote for a white political candidate rather than a black one. Symbolic racism is thought to influence attitudes toward race–based political attitudes regardless of a person’s personal interests.

In fact, the consensus of most research is that personal interests or self–interest plays little role in influencing people’s attitudes toward race–based policies (Sears and Funk 1991). But group–based interests are another matter. It could be that American whites may oppose race–based policies such as affirmative action in an effort to protect the interest of whites as a group, even if they do not try to protect personal interests threatened by such programs. Indeed, it has been argued that even symbolic racism derives from these group–interested motivations. However, research has shown that symbolic racism still strongly predicts whites’ racial policy preferences beyond indicators of any attachment to whites as a group. Strong white group identity, perceived common fate with other whites about valued resources, a perceived threat or competition for scarce resources between blacks and whites, and a perceived collective threat to whites’ well–being from black people all tend to have weak effects. Symbolic racism beliefs seem to be quite separate from desires to protect the group–based interests of whites.

Symbolic racism can also be distinguished from conservative ideology. Although symbolic racism is related to conservatism, and both conservative beliefs and symbolic racism contribute to opposition to race–based policies like affirmative action, the two constructs also operate independently. Symbolic racism strongly predicts racial policy preferences among both ideological liberals and conservatives. Also, symbolic racism theory suggests that symbolic racism determines racial policy attitudes, rather than that opposition to race–based programs determines symbolic racism. Of course some conservatives oppose race–based policies without being racist, but racism is thought to be the more important determinant of such opposition. This remains an important controversy, however.

The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale
Note: The following is the standard procedure for combining the items into a scale: After collecting the data, items 1, 2, 4, and 8 need to be recoded so that a 1 = 4, 2 = 3, 3 = 2, and 4 = 1. Item 3 needs to be recoded so that 1 = 3, 2 = 1, and 3 = 2. For combining the items into a scale, there are several options, ranging from the simplest to the most precise: (1) One could simply add the raw scores together for each item, so that each individual has a score that could range from 8 to 31. (2) To compensate for any missing data, one could average the raw scores. (3) To compensate for the differences in the number of response alternatives, one could recode each of the items on a 0 to 1 scale, so for item #3, a 1 = 1, 2 = 0, and 3 = .50, and for the other items the high response is a 1, the next a .66, the next a .33, and the low response is a 0. (This third technique is the one used in Henry & Sears, 2002.) (4) To equate the variability across items, one could create standardized (z) scores for each of the items in the scale, then average the responses.
SOURCE : Reprinted from Henry, P. J., and David O. Sears. (2002). “The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale.” Political Psychology, 23: 3.
1. 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.
1 Strongly agree
2 Somewhat agree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Strongly disagree
2. Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same.
1 Strongly agree
2 Somewhat agree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Strongly disagree
3. Some say that black leaders have been trying to push too fast. Others feel that they haven’t pushed fast enough. What do you think?
1 Trying to push very much too fast
2 Going too slowly
3 Moving at about the right speed
4. How much of the racial tension that exists in the United States today do you think blacks are responsible for creating?
1 All of it
2 Most
3 Some
4 Not much at all
5. How much discrimination against blacks do you feel there is in the United States today, limiting their chances to get ahead?
1 A lot
2 Some
3 Just a little
4 None at all
6. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
1 Strongly agree
2 Somewhat agree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Strongly disagree
7. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
1 Strongly agree
2 Somewhat agree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Strongly disagree
8. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve.
1 Strongly agree
2 Somewhat agree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Strongly disagree

MEASURING SYMBOLIC RACISM

Symbolic racism is typically measured with sample surveys of the general public. Typically, respondents complete a computer–based or paper–and–pencil questionnaire, or they are interviewed over the telephone or in person. Good measures of symbolic racism include items representing the four themes discussed earlier. These different themes all have the same effects on determining policy attitudes, and they can be seen as variants of the underlying perception that blacks violate cherished American values.

Items in any such scale of prejudice morph over time, just as language in a society morphs. For example, one item from the commonly used Modern Racism Scale (McConahay 1986), which asks whether the respondent believes that “blacks have more influence on school desegregation plans than they ought to have,” is not as relevant in the early twenty–first century as it was in the 1970s, when court–ordered school desegregation plans were the focal points of much political controversy. Consequently, this type of item is not typically used any more in capturing symbolic racism attitudes.

SYMBOLIC RACISM AND SIMILAR CONSTRUCTS

Symbolic racism is similar to some other constructs that also reflect the nature of modern prejudice. It is essentially the same as “modern racism” or “racial resentment,” both in concept and in the items used. Its underlying psychology is similar to other theories that also assume that a “new racism” became politically potent after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, embodying both negative feelings toward blacks and conservative non–racial values, including subtle prejudice, which reflects a defense of traditional values, an exaggeration of cultural differences, and a denial of positive emotions toward blacks; racial ambivalence, which describes many whites as vacillating between “problack” attitudes rooted in humanitarianism and egalitarianism and “antiblack” attitudes based in such traditional values as the Protestant ethic; or laissez–faire racism, which combines perceptions of little continuing racial discrimination with blacks’ own lack of sufficient effort in a market–driven society.

Symbolic racism is also related to aversive racism, which is characterized by the paradox that many white Americans feel favorable attitudes toward blacks but engage in subtle behaviors that discriminate against blacks, such as negative or avoidant nonverbal behavior or failing to help blacks in distress. Aversive racism is particularly likely when alternative explanations for behaviors do not imply negative racial attitudes. For example, even a white person who expresses favorable attitudes toward blacks may be less likely to help a black person than a white person when there is the easy, non–racial excuse to avoid help (for example, the presence of others available who could help). Aversive racism focuses on the paradoxical behaviors of those who hold positive attitudes toward blacks, while symbolic racism focuses on the range of racial attitudes from positive to negative.

SEPARATING SYMBOLIC RACISM FROM AUTOMATIC PREJUDICES

Symbolic racism is often distinguished from implicit prejudice, which is thought to be rooted in unconscious, automatic, or uncontrollable mental processes. It was first identified with reaction–time measures, which are difficult to control. For example, one might measure how quickly a participant associates negative words with photos of blacks, and the strength of this association has been considered by some to be a kind of negative racial attitude. Evidence on the relationship of implicit measures of prejudice to measures of symbolic racism is mixed sometimes there is little evidence of a relationship between the two, other times the relationship is meaningful (for example, when the attitudes involved are particularly important to an individual). Some evidence suggests that symbolic racism predicts deliberate responses such as policy and voting preferences, whereas implicit prejudice predicts more automatic responses, such as nonverbal interactions and subtle behaviors toward blacks. There is much debate about whether survey measures of prejudice such as symbolic racism and implicit measures of prejudice found in reaction–time studies capture different dimensions of racism, or whether one is a more “real” measure of racism than the other.

CRITICISMS OF SYMBOLIC RACISM

A number of criticisms have arisen concerning symbolic racism. Conservatives have suggested that symbolic racism is not racism, just a proxy for nonracial conservative beliefs, and that prejudice is really only a minor political force. On the other end of the political spectrum, social structuralists, who see society as strongly stratified along a racial hierarchy, with competition among racial groups to move up and avoid moving down, have suggested that symbolic racism is just a proxy for group–based interests. Their perspective posits that symbolic racism is merely a tool used by the dominant whites in society as a means of maintaining their privileged position.

These controversies are particularly important in light of race relations in the early 2000s. If the symbolic racism claim about early–socialized prejudice against blacks is correct, much remedial work needs to be done on the education of whites concerning racial inequities in society. If it is wrong, and conservative views that politics have been freed from racial prejudice is correct, then pressure would be placed upon blacks to adapt to a society in which they are no longer being treated unfairly by other Americans. Alternatively, if social structuralists are correct in stating that whites are primarily motivated by a defense of their privileged position, then a different strategy is called for, perhaps one that calls for more direct exercise of whatever powers minorities may have.

Another set of criticisms concerns the conceptualization and measurement of symbolic racism. The symbolic racism construct began as a largely intuitive account of the most politically potent form of racism outside the South in the post–civil rights era. It is not surprising that the construct was not initially sharply and consistently conceptualized. Symbolic racism was also originally described as a single construct, but it was later described as having a variety of subdimensions. In the early twenty–first century it is consistently described as having four themes. Perceived value violations are thought to be the underlying thread that all four expressions of symbolic racism have in common. They represent simply different ways one can express negative attitudes toward blacks in terms of this perception of value violations.

A second question arises about the contention that symbolic racism is a “blend” of early–acquired antiblack feelings and conservative traditional values that have no intrinsic link to race, such as individualism. Defining that blend as a fusion of the two elements in a single attitude is more in harmony both with the original theorizing and with current empirical evidence about the origins of symbolic racism. Research shows that symbolic racism is first acquired in late adolescence and becomes stronger as individuals progress through their lives.

A third critique arises from the fact that some early measures of symbolic racism included direct measures of opposition to race–based policies. Consequently, the criticism arose that the relationship between symbolic racism and racial policy preferences was circular, that symbolic racism was being captured by the measures it was intended to predict, even though those studies focused on candidate choice rather than policy preferences. For clarity, current measures of symbolic racism no longer refer to government action or involvement.

A fourth concern has been that people may hide their true prejudices when responding to symbolic racism items. Ironically, symbolic racism was initially thought to be an indirect measure of racism that avoided these kinds of response biases, in contrast to measures of old–fashioned racism that were too readily interpreted by respondents as measuring racism, and so underestimated prejudice. Symbolic racism, too, may be susceptible to respondent dissembling; some research shows lower levels of symbolic racism reported by whites when the scale is administered by a black interviewer. However, symbolic racism has stronger predictive power over voting preferences than other racial constructs such as old–fashioned racism, stereotypes, and antiblack feelings, which also are thought to suffer from similar social–desirability response biases. This finding suggests that social–desirability biases cannot adequately explain symbolic racism effects. Other evidence shows that implicit measures of prejudice may not be free from social and contextual influences either.

THEFUTURE OF SYMBOLIC RACISM

The theory of symbolic racism has been largely confined to the study of negative attitudes toward blacks in the contemporary United States. Scientific advancements have extended this research to identify other types of symbolic prejudices, or they have otherwise identified the importance of recognizing the power of perceiving other groups as violating cherished values. This research has been extended to include the study of symbolic racism toward Latino and Asian immigrants in the United States, modern sexism attitudes, modern anti–fat attitudes, modern heterosexism, and other forms of prejudice. The study of the perception of value violations as an important factor in determining general group–based attitudes is a growing line of research.

Americans continue to live in a society that seems unable to put race aside or deal with racism openly. Racial inequality continues to pervade most areas of social and economic life in the United States, and it does not seem to be diminishing rapidly. Nor is it clear how this situation can be rectified. The perspective from symbolic racism is that the future may be optimistic, but that a great deal of work is necessary to rectify negative attitudes toward blacks in the United States. White America seems to have developed a case of collective amnesia that allows it to treat racism as an ugly chapter in American history, a chapter that was closed for good with the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But neither people nor societies change that quickly. There is much data that testify to the continuing political power of racism. It may be that antiblack racism in the United States, like German antiSemitism, cannot be put aside without a strong majority demonstrating and acknowledging the continuing role of racial prejudice and discrimination in society.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Aversive Racism; Mental Health and Racism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Henry, P. J., and David O. Sears. 2002. “The Symbolic Racism 2000 Scale.” Political Psychology 23 (3): 253–283.

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McConahay, John B. 1986. “Modern Racism, Ambivalence, and the Modern Racism Scale.” In Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism, edited by John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner, 91– 126. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.

Reyna, Christine, P. J. Henry, W. Korfmacher, and A. Tucker. 2005. “Examining the Principles in Principled Conservatism: The Role of Responsibility Stereotypes as Cues for Deservingness in Racial Policy Decisions.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90 (1): 109–128.

Sears, David O., and Carolyn L. Funk 1991. “The Role of Self–Interest in Social and Political Attitudes.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by Mark P. Zanna, vol. 24, pp. 2–91. New York: Academic Press.

Sears, David O., and P. J. Henry. 2005. “Over Thirty Years Later: A Contemporary Look at Symbolic Racism.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 37: 95–150.

Sears, David O., Jim Sidanius, and Lawrence Bobo, eds. 2000. Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sidanius, Jim, Shana Levin, Joshua L. Rabinowitz, and Christopher M. Federico. 1999. “Peering into the Jaws of the Beast: The Integrative Dynamics of Social Identity, Symbolic Racism, and Social Dominance.” In Cultural Divides: Understanding and Overcoming Group Conflict, edited by Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller, 80–132. New York: Russell Sage.

Sniderman, Paul M., and Philip E. Tetlock. 1986. “Symbolic Racism: Problems of Motive Attributions in Political Analysis.” Journal of Social Issues 42: 129–150.

Swim, Janet K., Kathryn J. Aikin, Wayne S. Hall, and Barbara A. Hunter. 1995. “Sexism and Racism: Old–Fashioned and Modern Prejudices.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 68: 199–214.

Valentino, Nicholas A., and David O. Sears. 2005. “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (3): 672–688.

P. J. Henry
David O. Sears