Since the Democratic party switched sides on civil rights, liberal academics have tried to paint various conservative and Republican beliefs — support for tough-on-crime policies, opposition to affirmative action — as nothing more than “code” for racism. Last year, we saw an attempt to prove the Tea Party was racist, and today, Matt Yglesias points to an analysis of survey data by Alan I. Abramowitz that purportedly shows that opposition to Barack Obama is linked to racial attitudes.
I am perfectly willing to accept that racial discrimination and animosity are still a presence in modern-day America. But these attempts to show that conservatives are more racist than liberals are ridiculous.
The biggest problems with these two latest attempts — the tea-party study and the Abramowitz post — is that they rely on measures of “racial resentment.” If you’re wondering what that means, it can be translated as “attempts to trick conservatives into giving ‘racist’ answers to survey questions.” You might say that researchers are using “code” to get data they can skew to make the Right look bad.
Here’s how Abramowitz measured “racial resentment”:
These questions, which have been used in a number of studies of racial attitudes, asked respondents to agree or disagree with statements regarding the condition of African Americans in the United States including whether a legacy of racism and discrimination has made it difficult for blacks to get ahead, whether blacks have gotten less than they deserve in the United States, whether blacks would be as well off as whites if they tried harder and whether blacks should be able to overcome prejudice the same way other minority groups did, without any special favors.
Not coincidentally, one can arrive at the “resentful” answers to these questions not only through racism, but also through conservative beliefs. One might say blacks should “try harder” out of a belief that they are lazy — or out of a belief that in America, hard work produces results no matter the color of one’s skin, and is preferable to government aid. One might say blacks shouldn’t get “special favors” out of a dislike for them — or out of a belief that no one should get special favors on the basis of race. These conservative beliefs may be right or wrong, but they are not inherently racist.
Because these questions measure politics in addition to racial attitudes, it should hardly be surprising that people’s answers to these questions correspond to their beliefs about the president. Trying to “control” for politics using other methods — for example, comparing self-identified Republicans who answer the “resentment” questions in different ways — does not solve this problem. (Self-identifications of “conservative” or “Republican” include people with all sorts of beliefs, so removing them from consideration is not the same thing as removing all political beliefs from consideration, as I explained in detail here.)
The reason academics have to go to such lengths to tar conservatives as racist is that the basic survey data don’t give them the results they’re looking for. For example, in 2002, the General Social Survey directly asked its respondents to rate how “warm” or “cool” they felt toward blacks. It also asked respondents to rate how strongly they identified with the Republican or Democratic party, and how conservative or liberal they thought they were. (I have created a spreadsheet of the data you can download here.)
When you look at political ID, you see that white Democrats were more likely to ostentatiously declare that they felt “very warm” toward blacks. However, there is very little difference between the parties in their members’ propensity to say they are on the “cool” side of the spectrum — that is, to cop to racism. And not because no one is willing to do this, either: 11.6 percent of whites who rated themselves along the Democrat-Republican spectrum said they felt cool toward blacks, including 11.6 percent of strong Democrats, 13.1 percent of not-strong Democrats, and 9.6 percent of Democratic-leaning independents.
The conservative/liberal question gives little more credence to the academic line. Virtually no “extremely liberal” respondents said they felt cool toward blacks, but a decent number of standard liberals (8.4 percent) and an above-average number of those who called themselves “slightly” liberal (14.8 percent) did. The numbers for conservatives, from extreme to slight, are 11.1, 14.7, and 11.8 percent. That’s not exactly a smoking gun, and further, ideology self-IDs are suspect, as Yglesias himself has explained.
When about one in ten white Americans will flat-out admit to feeling “cool” toward blacks, it’s clear that racism is still an American problem. There is no evidence, however, that it is specifically a conservative one.