Sears, Valentino, and “Symbolic Racism”

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Dave Noon writes more about race and southern politics following up on the discussion launched by Rick Perlstein’s article on the subject:

Interestingly, one of the academic articles Perlstein mentions in support of Schaller’s claim — Nicholas Valentino and David Sears, “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South,” American Journal of Political Science (July 2005) — has been part of the regular rotation in the social science writing course I teach. Valentino and Sears argue that Southern white voters who display racially conservative attitudes are significantly more likely to vote Republican than other groups of Southern white voters. To put it crudely, then, the article suggests that while not all whites who vote Republican do so because they are racist, white racists in the South are likely to recognize the Republican party as a comfortable home for their aberrant views on black intelligence, patriotism, work ethic and and trustworthiness among other character traits.

I read the Valentino and Sears paper yesterday, and I think it’s plausibly true that the authors are biased against Republicans. In particular, they adopt some inflammatory terminology that I wish they’d avoided, because their data and their empirical argument seem very strong and the terminology is going to lead people to miss their point.

One key to their argument is their construction of a “symbolic racism” metric that I think they shouldn’t have called “symbolic racism.” The metric is based on answers to the following questions on the National Election Survey:

Its most common measures over the years have been four 5-point agree/disagree items in the NES, which provided us an additive scale for the years 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, and 2000: (1) Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors (agree); (2) Over the past few years blacks have gotten less than they deserve (disagree); (3) 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 (agree); (4) Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class (disagree).

As I say, I think it’s unduly inflammatory, for analytic purposes, to say that people who gave the conservative answers to these questions are “racists.” At other points they use alternative terminology that simply lables the agree/disagree/agree/disagree suit “racial conservatism,” which I think allows for calmer discussion of this.

What their statistical analysis shows is that even though support for segregation has dropped massively in among white southerners in recent decades, the level of racial conservatism has not. They also show that the level of racial conservatism among white southerners is significantly higher than among white non-southerners. Last, they show that racial conservatism among white southerners is strongly correlated with a propensity to vote Republican even when you control for demographic and (non-racial) ideological factors.

All of which is to say that GOP electoral strength in the South is importantly determined by the presence of large numbers of white southerners who believe blacks should not get “special favors” to help them overcome discrimination, have not “gotten less than they deserve” in recent years, would be doing as well as whites if they “would only try harder,” and who deny that “generations of slavery and discrimination” make it unusually hard for blacks to escape underclass conditions.

The important takeaway point, I think, isn’t to call white southerners racists, but rather — as Perlstein was mainly arguing — simply that the press is weirdly blind to the fact that disagreements about race continue to be central to American politics. That disagreements about race are central should be no surprise — such disagreements have traditionally been the most important issue in American politics.