What Emotions Fuel Racism in America?

The article, “Emotional Substrates of White Racial Attitudes” by Antoine J. Banks and Nicholas A. Valentino, appears in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, Professor Banks summarizes its content:

Over the past 40 years, the belief that blacks are biologically different than, and inferior to, whites has precipitously declined in prevalence and influence in American society. Now the vast majority of whites believe that blacks and whites should be able to attend the same schools, get married, and live in the same neighborhoods. Despite the fact that a majority of whites endorse racial equality in principle, they do not support public policies designed to reduce racial inequality. Several explanations have been offered for the divergence in support for racial equality in principle and practice. One is that opposition to racial redistribution springs from a new, subtle form of racism – referred to as symbolic racism. The theory argues that this new form of animus is rooted in a synthesis of anti-black affect and the belief that blacks violate American traditional values such as the Protestant work ethic. Some scholars insist that symbolic racism theory overstates the role of racial animus in the U.S. They argue that the proper size and role of government, political ideology, and race-neutral values drive policy opinions. Studies testing these competing perspectives remain inconclusive because scholars have disagreed whether symbolic racism, old-fashioned racism, and race-neutral values are distinct.

In our article “Emotional Substrates of White Racial Attitudes”, we try to move the debate forward by theorizing about the emotional antecedents of each attitude dimension. Our research argues that the dominant emotional substrate of racism has evolved from a feeling of disgust to one of anger. The now antiquated belief that blacks are biologically distinct and racially inferior should have been linked strongly to disgust. In the contemporary period, racial rhetoric is characterized by claims that blacks possess an unfair advantage. This sentiment should be linked to pervasive anger toward government for giving blacks resources they do not deserve. If whites learn about race in this contemporary climate, these anger appraisals should be quite salient whenever they think about racial policies On the other hand, race-neutral values like individualism should not be strongly related to any of these emotions, since they are abstract and not linked to particular groups.

To test these propositions, we utilize two different methodological approaches – an experiment on an adult national sample and the 1985 American National Election Study. We find that anger, even when triggered by a completely apolitical process, boosts opposition to racial redistribution among whites high in symbolic racism. Fear does not have this effect. Meanwhile, no emotion heightens the power of non-racial values. These results suggest that symbolic racism, old-fashioned racism, and non-racial values are distinct belief systems rooted in different emotional processes. They imply that the link between anger and racial attitudes remains strong, and that moments of high anger, perhaps regardless of the source, may boost the influence of racism. One simply has to look at the emotion surrounding Barack Obama, his health care reform policy, and movements like the Tea Party to see how race in contemporary America is built primarily on anger.

About the authors: Antoine J. Banks is Assistant Professor of Government and Politics at University of Maryland and Nicholas A. Valentino is Professor of Political Science and Research Professor at the Institute of Social Research, University of Michigan.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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