Sorry Democrats, your party has racial bias problems too (Part 1)

By Kent R. Kroeger (May 16, 2018)

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[This is Part 1 of a two-part article on how racial/ethnic attitudes permeated the 2016 election. Part 1 details the issues and complexities of efforts to understand racial attitudes and how they impact the political arena. Part 2 details my own research on this topic with respect to the 2016 presidential election.]

‘Racism’ is an ugly word. And to call someone a ‘racist’ is too often a predatory act meant to silence someone’s voice rather than to bring enlightenment to a debate.

The terms ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ remain a significant subject of inquiry in the social science community, in part, because these words invoke strong feelings within people even as their definitions are still contested.

What does it mean to be a ‘racist’?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definitions of ‘racism’ are the following:

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Merriam-Webster is smart to cover as many bases as possible with its definitions of ‘racism’ as the sociological utility of the term is not settled science. During my 30 years of measuring public opinion, I often struggled with how to operationalize and measure the concept, finding every attempt, no matter how well informed by the scientific literature, a disappointing effort.

Racism is too multi-faceted to be easily captured in a simplistic public opinion survey.

Given my own experience, I cringe today when I hear people calling other people ‘racist.’ It is such an aggressive and defamatory act that it rarely serves any constructive purpose. And when the label ‘racist’ is associated with public policies (drug laws) or voting behaviors (Trump voters), the term begins to lose its analytic value as it enters into the public discourse as both an independent variable (‘Joe Blow is a racist’) and dependent variable (‘Joe Blow supports Donald Trump’s Wall’).

Once the media associates public policies with ‘racism’ it becomes impossible to have rational and constructive conversations on such policies.

Opposing affirmative action laws or supporting stronger immigration laws does not make someone a racist, even though, possessing those opinions may very well correlate with racist beliefs.

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The above social media meme highlights the negative and corrosive impact social media, and the news media in general, can have on public policy discussions.

It’s convenient and lazy for the news media to link racial/ethnic stereotypes (e.g., working-class white people) to arguably racist public policies (e.g., Trump’s border wall). The media does this not in an effort to understand the hopes and concerns of working-class white people, but to serve their audience who share very little in common with these people. Mocking working-class people sells papers and attracts TV advertisers.

Unfortunately, this media dynamic leads to a dysfunctional partisan dialogue on race and does nothing to educate the public.

To date, Democratic political leaders have demonstrated little resistance to smearing Republicans and Trump voters with the ‘racist’ label.

Is it fair?

There is no simple answer to that question. Defaming the innocent in pursuit of the wicked has a long rich history. But guidance may be offered from Roman poet Juvenal who once wrote: Censure pardons the ravens but rebukes the doves.

In other words, it is more likely the innocent will suffer the consequences of the media calling them ‘racist,’ while the true a**holes escape unscathed.

Struggling coal workers in West Virginia who voted for Donald Trump don’t deserve the constant shame heaped on them by the mainstream news media. It isn’t just reviling, it provides an inaccurate portrayal of the motivations and concerns of these people.

Institutional racism is easier to measure than individual-level racism

Let there be no doubt: There are racists in this country. But the equally important question is whether our social institutions are racist, independent of whether the people operating within those institutions are themselves racist. Is it possible honorable people, while not racists themselves, can still stand over and support institutional processes that lead to racist social outcomes?

To answer that in the affirmative is to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism. Look no further than this nation’s drug laws to understand the pernicious effects of institutional racism. How we fund and organize secondary education in this country perpetuates racist outcomes. And how we define congressional districts, such as through gerrymandering, can lead to irrefutably racist political outcomes.

This is not the rant of a liberal social justice warrior — I am a libertarian conservative and an unapologetic Trump voter, but your head has to be completely up your rear-facing blowhole if you think racism doesn’t continue to have a substantial and pervasive impact on our society.

Our society can be produce racist outcomes even if, as individuals, we collectively are not.

But my path diverges quickly from liberal progressive views on racism when they carelessly use the term to shame broad swaths of people, such as Trump voters. These are just some of the recent articles promoting that argument:

The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment (Another study produces the same findings we’ve seen over and over again), by German Lopez (Vox.com)

Hillary Clinton says Trump Appealed to Racist, Sexist Voters, by Dominique Mosbergen (Huffington Post)

One study conducted prior to the 2016 election also offers support for the ‘racial resentment’ thesis:

Economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment. Racial resentment is driving economic anxiety, by Michael Tesler (Washington Post).

It is not that these studies are wrong or methodologically flawed. The issue is that the media does not understand what these studies are actually saying, and instead use headlines that support a running narrative that Trump voters are ‘racist.’

No doubt, some Trump voters are ‘racist.’ So are some Clinton voters. But, that fact doesn’t fit the mainstream media narrative.

The studies referenced above aren’t saying all Trump voters are racist or that none of Hillary Clinton’s voters held ‘racist’ views. Instead, these studies are saying ‘racial resentments’ were a significant factor in deciding how people voted.

These same studies demonstrated that party identification and ideological predispositions were also important in determining vote decisions. But that is not interesting from a media perspective.

That may seem like a nuanced distinction, but that little detail is critical in understanding the 2016 election.

Not all Trump voters are racist.

I found one study recently released by Brian F. Schaffner (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Matthew MacWilliams MacWilliams (Sanders Communication), and Tatishe Nteta (University of Massachusetts Amherst) to be especially informative, though its findings were generally misrepresented by the mainstream media.

The study authors found that the economic stresses were not the driving force in the 2016 presidential election. Instead, they offer evidence that ‘racial resentments’ by white, not-college-educated voters were critical in determining the 2016 election outcome.

“The 2016 campaign witnessed a dramatic polarization in the vote choices of whites based on education,” they write. “Very little of this gap can be explained by the economic difficulties faced by less educated whites. Rather, most of the divide appears to be the result of racism and sexism in the electorate, especially among whites without college degrees.”

Schaffner, MacWilliams, and Nteta go on to write: “Sexism and racism were powerful forces in structuring the 2016 presidential vote, even after controlling for partisanship and ideology. Of course, it would be misguided to seek an understanding of Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election through any single lens. Yet, in a campaign that was marked by exceptionally explicit rhetoric on race and gender, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that voters’ attitudes on race and sex were so important in determining their vote choices.”

My only caveat with their voting model is that they didn’t include respondents’ differential evaluations of the candidates’ honesty, which I found in my own research to be a highly significant predictor of vote choice in 2016.

However, the fact that most of the quantitative studies supporting the ‘racial resentment’ thesis are cross-sectional (i.e., measured at one point in time) and employ non-dynamic modeling methods should elicit pause in uncritically accepting their findings. Furthermore, ‘racial resentment’ is not necessarily the same as being ‘racist,’ which may sound like a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but actually reflects the problems endemic to measuring racism at an individual-level.

Nonetheless, these studies’ conclusions are compelling and probably not too far off the mark.

But as you will read in Part 2 of this article, I utilize the 2016 American National Election Study to show that ‘racial bias’ is prevalent across a large swath of the American populace. It is not confined to Trump voters.

It is not hard to find racial bias among liberal Democrats too.

How do we know if someone is a racist?

Definitions of ‘racism’ are often so broad that almost anyone can be labelled a ‘racist.’ [The same is true about ‘sexism.’] Such definitions are analytically useless.

Over my career, I have read hundreds of quantitative studies on racism. As of today, I am still uncertain on how to define ‘racism’ or what it means to be a ‘racist.’ Unfortunately, too many media pundits are not so uncertain.

A recent essay by Sebastian Whitaker for Affinity Magazine was particularly illustrative. In his article, “Dear White People, Your “Dictionary Definition” Of Racism Is Wrong,” Whitaker outlines the complexity of defining ‘racism.’

“Racism is such a complex idea that it would be impossible to describe every aspect of it in a basic 101 way,” writes Whitaker. “Dictionaries should instead be used as a starting point for learning, leading to more thorough research and investigation, rather than being a final and definitive argument as to why white people can experience racism.”

I could not agree with Whitaker more. Yet, Whitaker offers no conciliatory reprieve to those of us who remain uncertain exactly how to define the ‘racism’ construct or how to determine its prevalence in this country. To the contrary, even asking the question on how to define ‘racism’ becomes a manifestation of racism in Whitaker’s view.

“ For many white people, the ‘definition of racism’ offers them a safeguard so that they no longer feel the need to check their privilege. It acts as a last resort when backed into a corner by logic and reason,” writes Whitaker. “It is their final safety measure to ensure that they still win the conversation, even though this is not the type of conversation to be won.”

But the likely result of Whitaker’s approach is to shut down the conversation altogether.

It is not hard to find ‘racists’ — they are all over social media

Through YouTube and other social media platforms, we are routinely treated to examples of what overt racism looks and sounds like. Here is just the latest example from New York City deli:

And not all racist rants emanate from white men. The following is a particularly sad example from a confrontation at an International House of Pancakes.

I don’t personally know that women in the IHOP video. But I do know her. She could be any of my older relatives from my grandparents’ generation. I have a vivid memory of my tiny, 4-foot-10 grandmother sharing a few of her racial theories with an African-American gentleman that had accidentally bumped into her as we were shopping in downtown Chicago.

Some people don’t hide their racism and various social commentators have suggested Donald Trump has emboldened these racists to more openly express their socially regressive attitudes. While I have not seen quantitative evidence supporting that assertion, I don’t doubt that it is true.

More likely, however, particularly when compared to the pre-Civil Rights era, overt racism has receded into the shadows and has been replaced by more implicit and subtle forms of racism. But in trying to understand implicit racism we are heading down a slippery slope that will more likely confirm Juvenal’s wisdom.

Conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro, offers a strong critique of implicit racism measures:

I am a little more forgiving than Shapiro on the validity of implicit racism measures, but his concerns over their gross imperfections cannot be ignored.

And he is not the only one dismissive of implicit bias measures.

Can we really understand what is in peoples’ hearts?

‘Racism’ is an issue of the heart and is not necessarily discernible from actions, or even our words.

Generally speaking, most people are inarticulate when discussing their attitudes regarding race.

[Insert virtually any Donald Trump reference to race here.]

Furthermore, most of us are good at rationalizing away our infrequent but racially-insensitive thought transgressions. But do these transgressions nonetheless reflect our deep flaws with respect to race? To label someone a ‘racist’ based on attitudinal infractions assumes we know that person on a level they rarely know themselves (hence, the birth of implicit bias tests).

From my experience, such deterministic thinking feels reckless and fraught with error.

Yet, Whitaker, like many in the intellectual vanguard, want to relieve us of any pretense about our status as racists. If you are ‘white’ and don’t openly disavow ‘white privilege,’ you are a racist. End of argument.

Its an intellectual short-cut that may work for Whitaker’s purposes, but as a quantitative social analyst, his method is inadequate.

Legitimate social analysts need to be clear in their definitions and should develop theories and hypotheses that are testable and easily replicated for others to critique.

In that effort, we first must expand our understanding ‘racism’ to also include the more general concept of ‘ethnocentrism.’ Race and ethnicity are hard to disentangle, but this complexity should not prevent attempts at understanding their importance in explaining social phenomenon.

Racists to the right of me, racists to the left…here I am, stuck in the middle with…more racists!

If asked to define ‘racism’ and, more broadly, ‘ethnocentrism,’ I would offer this definition: Racism and ethnocentrism are the systematic use of race (i.e., skin-color) and ethnic origins to explain or predict personal and social outcomes.

Of course, ‘race’ is a social construct and not just a biological characteristic. How can any researcher assess ‘racism’ when there is no single accepted understanding of ‘race’? Perhaps even using the term ‘race’ predestines that we will find most people use ‘race’ as a heuristic device to navigate their world. The definitional barriers to examining the importance of ‘race’ may make methodological issues effectively irrelevant.

But in Part 2 of this article, I will make the attempt anyway and share my analysis of the 2016 American National Election Study and its survey measure of ‘racial group favoritism’ as it related to voters (and non-voters) in the presidential election.

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