Are Racists Only in One Political Party?

by John Sides on August 19, 2012 · 51 comments

in Political Parties,Public opinion

Alex Tabarrok quotes MSNBC’s Chris Hayes:

It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.

He then summarizes several survey items and finds that both Democrats and Republicans express attitudes that are not favorable to blacks.  He concludes:

It is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties. No party has a monopoly on racists.

I think Tabarrok’s conclusion is closer to the truth that Hayes’s statement.  Let me see if I can elaborate this issue in some useful ways.

As a measure of racism—and by no means a perfect one—I will use two different items from the 2008 American National Election Study.  Respondents were asked to evaluate whites, blacks, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans on two scales.  Each scale was numbered 1 to 7.  At one end was the word “intelligent” or “hardworking.”  At the other end was “unintelligent” or “lazy.”  Respondents gave their answers to these questions with an interviewer present in the room, but on a laptop computer that was not visible to the interviewer.  This is obviously intended to mitigate any unwillingness to express unfavorable attitudes toward a group.

Here is how white respondents answered the two scales for blacks:


The plurality of whites put themselves at the midpoint on the scale.  However, assessments of blacks as “lazy” are more common than assessments of blacks as “hardworking.”  By contrast, assessments of blacks as “intelligent” are slightly more common than assessments of blacks as “unintelligent.”  One thing to note: only about 5% of respondents did not express any preference, although I do not display them in the graphs.  One other note: whites also tend to rate whites more favorably on these scales than they do blacks, although I do not show that here either.

Now, to Hayes’s statement: what percent of Democrats, independents, and Republicans are located at each of the seven points on each scale?


Overall, Republicans are slightly more likely to assess blacks unfavorably on these dimensions.  For example, 39% of Republicans place blacks on the “lazy” side of the scale, while 31% of Democrats do.  But by and large, Tabarrok is quite correct: both parties include substantial fractions willing to stereotype blacks unfavorably.

Thus far, I’ve essentially asked, “What are the racial views of Democrats, independent, and Republicans?”  Let’s turn that question around and ask, “What is the party identification of people with favorable, neutral, and unfavorable views of blacks?”  Here are two tables.  Now the percentages should be read across the row, rather than down the column.  Note that independents who lean toward a party are counted as partisans.


This graph shows that identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican party tends to increase, as attitudes toward black become less favorable—at least when attitudes are measured with two different racial stereotypes.  However, the relationship is far from deterministic: substantial minorities of those with unfavorable attitudes toward blacks identify as Democrats.  (The 60% identifying Democratic among those who rated blacks most unfavorably on the intelligence scale should be treated with caution, as there were only 15 people who gave this rating.)

In sum, I don’t think Tabarrok is technically correct to say that “racists are split evenly between the two parties.”  At least by these measures, the split is not exactly even.  But he is absolutely correct to say that neither party has a monopoly on racists.

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