Paul M. Sniderman is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Here be describes the findings of his latest book, The Scar of Race, coauthored by Thomas Piazza.
Only a generation ago racial prejudice dominated the politics of race. The opposition of white Americans to government policies intended to help blacks was not grounded in a larger philosophy of government or careful study of the issues. Its basis was simple. Large numbers of white Americans disliked blacks, and, disliking them, were disinclined to support government policies to help them.
Bigotry has not disappeared, but in the minds of Americans who have long cared about the problems of prejudice and racial inequality, there is increasingly an intuition—imprecise, tentative, more often implicit than explicit—that the meaning of race as an issue in American life is changing. But changing in what ways? And to what extent? And with what consequences for the future?
It is difficult to address questions like these impartially if only because it has become difficult to talk about prejudice and politics candidly. It has become fashionable, for example, to assert that the contemporary conflict over racial policies is driven through and through by bigotry; and it is not uncommon, even for scholars, to insist that opposition to affirmative action is, in and of itself, proof of bigotry. Our aim has been to evaluate assertions like these as objectively as possible. We have taken advantage of the two systematic national studies of racial attitudes—the General Social Survey and the National Election Studies, and with the support of the National Science Foundation we have also designed and concluded our own large-scale studies, introducing a variety of new measures and procedures.
Taking advantage of the new data and measures, in The Scar of Race we assess the validity of many of the current characterizations of racial politics. For example, against the common claim that opposition to affirmative action is an expression of racism, we found that four out of five whites oppose affirmative action, and that race prejudice is a factor of minor importance in accounting for opposition to affirmative action. Moreover, detailed analyses demonstrate that although it is true that some whites dislike affirmative action because they dislike blacks, it is also true that a substantial number of whites dislike the idea of affirmative action so much that they have come to dislike blacks as a consequence. Hence the special irony of the contemporary politics of race. Wishing to close the racial divide in America, we have widened it.
Reducing the politics of race to racism is a mistake. Not that racial prejudice is a spent force:
Our data show that substantial numbers of whites still hold negative views of blacks. But our analyses also demonstrate that racial prejudice no longer dominates reactions to public policies designed to help blacks. The politics of race has become complex. It no longer makes sense to speak of the issue of race, as though there were only one deep-lying political cleavage regardless of the specifics of public policy issues. There are now a number of different issues of race and the positions that people take on these issues, and the reasons they take them, can differ significantly. The politics of affirmative action is not the same as the politics of social welfare, and the politics of equal treatment differs yet again.
This diversity of responses to racial issues is the single most important feature of contemporary racial politics. If whites’ reactions to racial policies were the result of how they felt about blacks, we would expect their reaction to racial issues to be more consistent. What our research showed, however, is that a large number of racial issues stand substantially on their own. For example, we found little correlation between how whites feel about fair housing legislation and how they feel about affirmative action, or between social welfare spending on behalf of blacks and busing.
The loosening of ties binding one racial issue to another reveals that whites’ reactions to policies designed to benefit blacks no longer boil down to how they feel about blacks. In taking a position on an issue like affirmative action or a larger role for government in improving the living conditions of blacks, Americans are, to be sure, reacting to the problem of race. But they are more fundamentally responding to specific choices about what government should and should not do.
A deep obstacle to understanding the real place of race in American life has been the assumption, shared across the ideological spectrum, that we already do understand it. What we understand, however, is the way the world was a generation ago, the world when the politics of race turned on a conflict between bigotry, self-interest, and tradition on the one side and the highest principles of the “American Creed”—liberty, equality, the dignity of the individual—on the other. Issues of race remain partly a matter of conscience; but the politics of race has become more complex, more divisive, morally more problematic.
It matters for many reasons to recognize that the politics of race is complex now in a way it was not a generation ago, but perhaps the most important is this. Everyone has supposed that white Americans may not know, or care, much about many issues of public policy, but that on race they know where they stand. Our study documents a different reality. Unlike standard public opinion surveys, once we knew the position people took on a racial issue, we tried to talk them out of it. If they favored more government spending on behalf of blacks, for example, we presented them with a counterargument, trying to change their minds; and if they favored blacks taking responsibility for dealing with their own problems, we offered a counter argument to that position. The Scar of Race presents a number of detailed findings, but the crucial lesson is this: The policy preferences of large numbers of white Americans are surprisingly pliable. They are open to argument, we should emphasize, in either direction. In our experiment 44 percent were talked out of their position on the issue of government spending for blacks; 42 percent on the issue of government assurance of fair treatment in employment; 24 percent on fair housing laws, and 20 percent on affirmation action for colleges.
It has become an accepted idea that the best way—and perhaps the only way—to stir Americans to act on problems of race is to insist that prejudice remains a dominant force in American life. That has been a costly idea. It has led to the presumption that racism remains as strong a force in American life now as thirty years earlier. It has encouraged the still more misleading idea that problems of race cannot be ameliorated unless and until prejudice is eliminated. And it has legitimized a conviction that if a particular line of racial policy meets with resistance and evokes objections, the root reason must be racism. All of this is wrong, and we demonstrate it to be wrong.
Prejudice remains a part of the politics of race, but a larger part is politics itself. Social welfare policies, equal treatment legislation, and race-conscious policies represent very different policy agendas; and the impact of ideology, conflicting intuitions about fairness and responsibility, and prejudice itself varies from one racial policy agenda to another. A minimal condition for participating intelligently in the contemporary debate over race is to recognize that a variety of different arguments are under way and that they are centrally driven not by racial prejudice but by considerations of public policy.