Distinguishing Racism from Ideology: A Methodological Inquiry

By Zigerell, L. J. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Distinguishing Racism from Ideology: A Methodological Inquiry


Zigerell, L. J., Political Research Quarterly


Blacks in the United States have faced racism in forms such as slavery, Jim Crow, violence, and separate and unequal schools. Old-fashioned racism has become less common over the past few decades (Valentino and Sears 2005, 678), but recent claims have been made about a "rising tide of anti-black racism" (Bouie 2013) and "overwhelming" evidence that "racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life" (Kristof 2014). Much recent discussion of racism in the United States has focused on dramatic incidents such as shootings of unarmed black men, but scholars have also warned of a "new racism" that is "subtle, institutionalized and seemingly nonracial" (Bonilla-Silva, cited in Blake 2014).

Perhaps the most prominent form of this new racism is known as racial resentment or symbolic racism, which Sears and Henry (2007, 963) called "the most influential form of racial prejudice in American political life since the civil rights era of the 1960s." Research on symbolic racism has provided evidence that antiblack bias has widespread influence: symbolic racism predicts white opposition to policies designed to help blacks (Tarman and Sears 2005), white opposition to black political candidates such as Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election (Ford, Maxwell, and Shields 2010), white support for punitive criminal punishment policies that negatively affect blacks at a disproportionate rate (Green, Staerklé, and Sears 2006), and even ostensibly nonracial behavior such as gun ownership (O'Brien et al. 2013) and Tea Party membership (Tope, Pickett, and Chiricos 2015).

Symbolic racism has been used to identify the influence of racism, but several studies have suggested that symbolic racism to some extent measures ideology instead of racism (Feldman and Huddy 2005; Sniderman and Tetlock 1986a). In Study 1, I provide guidelines for interpreting symbolic racism research so that researchers can identify when symbolic racism research has identified an attitude or policy preference influenced by racial bias; in Study 2, I provide evidence to help researchers better describe the nature of the racial bias that symbolic racism identifies, which has been inconsistently described in the literature in terms ranging from "racial animosity" (Valentino and Sears 2005, 674) to "some sort of racebased sentiment" (Rabinowitz et al. 2009, 818).

The Typical Symbolic Racism Research Design

Symbolic racism reflects complaints about blacks at a societal and not a personal level (Kinder 1986, 153), in particular, "contentions that blacks do not try hard enough to overcome the difficulties they face and that they take what they have not earned" (Kinder and Sanders 1996, 106). However, symbolic racism is not a pure measure of racial bias: symbolic racism is instead "the conjunction of prejudice and values" (Kinder 1986, 156) that "[melds] ordinary conservatism with some racial animosity" (Valentino and Sears 2005, 674); this conflation of ideology and racial bias can be detected in the following item from the symbolic racism battery:

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.

This statement cannot be used to identify racial bias because a person who agreed with the statement might also agree that poor whites who try harder could be just as well off as middle-class whites. Sniderman and Tetlock (1986a, 181) noted that high symbolic racism scores can indicate pure racism or pure conservatism, and factor analyses have provided evidence that "symbolic racism is made up about equally of racial prejudice and general conservatism" (Sears and Henry 2003, 271).

Because symbolic racism is an impure measure, the effect of symbolic racism cannot be assigned to the racial component of symbolic racism without first eliminating the conservative component of symbolic racism. The typical symbolic racism research design has thus been to use statistical control to attempt to eliminate symbolic racism's conservative component: " . …

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