David Duke is one of the most interesting social and political phenomenons of recent times. A former head of the Ku Klux Klan and a former Nazi sympathizer, he has denied his racist past, saying it was youthful indiscretion. He is a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and ran a strong race for the United States Senate, in which he gained about 45% of the total vote and more than 50% of the white vote in Louisiana (Eisenman, 1992). A study of why people like him may throw light on the psychology of prejudice and on how attitudes are formed, and a study of reaction to the film Who Is David Duke may cast light on how prejudice can be changed.
Today, it is usually not acceptable to be overtly racist in the United States, although indirect expression is often prevalent. Duke's denial of his past is a clever position, since voters can support him yet deny that they dislike blacks or Jews. Social stigma may be avoided if others can be convinced that the denial is sincere (Eisenman, 1991; Goffman, 1963; Jones, Farina, Hastorf, Markus, Miller, & Scott, 1984). Thus, Duke's constant attack on blacks, using code terms such as "welfare cheats," allows one to hold an implicitly racist view without overt acknowledgment.
Although Duke claims he is not a racist or a Nazi and no longer sympathizes with such people, the Public Broadcasting System film Who Is David Duke?, shown on the program "Frontline," provides a different picture. In this film, people say that when they talk with Duke in private, a totally different image emerges. In contrast with his public stance of not being a prejudiced person, in private he condemns blacks and Jews, says the Holocaust never happened, and once advised a Nazi to be less obvious in what he is saying. This would seem to indicate that Duke has not given up his racism. Would students who see this film change their views of Duke? A previous study indicated that just over 50% of a sample of students at a Louisiana university liked Duke (Eisenman, 1992), and another study found that Louisiana university students who liked Duke for the most part did not change after seeing Who Is David Duke? (Eisenman, 1993).
University students in Mississippi should be just as prejudiced as those in Louisiana, if not more so, given the history of racism in that state. On the other hand, Duke is from Louisiana, and his appeal to students in that state may be influenced by his being "one of ours." If this second explanation is most important, Mississippi university students might be less supportive of Duke than Louisiana students were found to be. For the present research, two improvements over the Eisenman (1993) study were made. First, data were collected during one session. In the earlier study, the film was shown over two class sessions, since the class met for only 50 minutes. This approach could have allowed students to discuss their views with one another, biasing the results. Second, in the earlier study, students were asked only two things: to indicate whether they liked or disliked Duke and whether they believed he is a racist. In the present study, a seven-item questionnaire was administered before and after the film. In addition to the above two questions, students were asked whether they would vote for Duke, whether they believed he is right about welfare, about blacks, and about the Holocaust, and whether he is anti-Semitic.
The participants were 211 students at a state university in Mississippi who were enrolled in social work and introductory sociology classes. Their mean age was 21.1 years (mode = 18 years).
Students indicated attitudes toward David Duke on a seven-item questionnaire prepared for this study. The questionnaire was filled out once before seeing the film and again immediately afterwards. In addition to yes or no and like or dislike, do not know was a response option, since many students may have had no opinion or knowledge of Duke, especially before seeing the film. …