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Symbolic racism (also known as modern-symbolic racism, modern racism, symbolic prejudice, and racial resentment) is a coherent belief system that reflects an underlying unidimensional prejudice towards black people in the United States. These beliefs include the stereotype that blacks are morally inferior to white people, and that they violate traditional White American values such as hard work and independence. This is also more of a general term than it is specifically related to prejudice towards black people. It can be more generally characterized as an open dislike and derogation of individuals related to one's self.[clarification needed] These beliefs may cause the subject to discriminate against black people and to justify this discrimination. Some people do not view symbolic racism as prejudice since it is not linked directly to race but indirectly through social and political issues.
Symbolic racism is a form of modern racism, as it is more subtle and indirect than more overt forms of racism, such as those characterized in Jim Crow laws. As symbolic racism develops through socialization and its processes occur without conscious awareness, an individual with symbolic racist beliefs may genuinely oppose racism and believe they are not racist. Symbolic racism is perhaps the most prevalent racial attitude today.
In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, old-fashioned (or "Jim Crow") racism dissolved along with segregation in the United States. Some people believe that new forms of racism began to replace old-fashioned racism. Symbolic racism is a term that was coined by David Sears and John McConahay in 1973 to explain why most white Americans supported principles of equality for black Americans, but less than half were willing to support programs designed to implement these principles. The original theory described three definitive aspects of symbolic racism:
The concept of symbolic racism has evolved over time but most writings currently define symbolic racism as containing four themes:
The term symbolic racism derives from the fact that the opinions expressed characterize blacks as an abstract group, "as in the anonymous 'they' in 'if they would only…'" rather than specific individuals. People hold prejudices because of the cultural stereotypes attributed to the group rather than because of any personal individual experience with the group in question. Researchers have given the concept of symbolic racism many different names, usually to emphasize one aspect over another. These names include modern racism, racial resentment, and laissez-faire racism. However, they all represent virtually the same concept and are measured in much the same way.
While similar in nature, symbolic racism is distinguished from aversive racism based on the relationships between the defining characteristics. Aversive racism involves "separate, disassociated positive and negative components, which are in conflict, and thus, may sometimes be experienced as ambivalence." Symbolic racism, on the other hand, "reflects the unique assimilation of individualistic values and negative racial affect." The components of aversive racism remain disassociated within the individual; whereas, the components of symbolic racism blend to produce racial attitudes. While both types of racism predict similar behavior, they are the consequences of different fundamental processes.
Whitley and Kite cite six underlying factors that contribute to symbolic racism. They are to this day believed to have been some of the biggest influences on modern racism.
According to Whitley and Kite, those who hold symbolic racist beliefs tend to hold implicitly negative attitudes, most likely gained in childhood, towards blacks that may or may not be conscious. These attitudes may not be outright hatred, but rather fear, disgust, anger, contempt, etc. In addition, those who hold symbolic racist beliefs may also believe in traditional American values such as hard work, individuality, and self-restraint. However, these beliefs have become racialized. Many perceive that black individuals do not hold or act in accordance with these values. Instead, black individuals rely on public assistance, seek government favors, and act impulsively. As Whitley and Kite note, "The fact that White people also accept public assistance, seek government favors, and act impulsively is not relevant to people with symbolic prejudice; it is their perception (usually in stereotypic terms) of Black people's behavior that they focus on." Furthermore, those with symbolic prejudice tend to believe in the equality of opportunity, which includes access to resources such as education, housing, and employment. However, they tend not to believe in the equality of outcome. This explains how people can support the principle of racial equality but not support initiatives to achieve it, such as affirmative action. Government intervention when individuals do not have the same talent, effort or historical background would violate traditional values of equality of opportunity. Thus, "people can simultaneously endorse equality of opportunity and reject government intervention to bring about equality of outcome." Group self-interest reflects the idea that people try to do what is best for their group. This idea manifests itself in the opinion that whites are deprived as a group of opportunities due to policies intended to benefit blacks. Finally, Whitley and Kite state most whites do not have extensive personal experience with blacks so the negative stereotypes they hold about blacks do not have the opportunity to be dispelled.
Much of the initial research conducted by researchers on symbolic racism utilized McConahay's (1986) modern racism scale (MRS). However, citing a number of measurement problems, Sears and Henry published the Symbolic Racism 2000 (SR2K) Scale in 2002 in the journal Political Psychology. It consists of a series of statements relating to race and politics to which the participant must state their agreement on a scale of "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." Statements included on the American National Election Studies surveys and most commonly used in political science research include:
This updated scale addresses the issues with previous forms of measurement including internal reliability, construct validity, predictive validity, and discriminant validity, and generalizability.
Bobocel et al. (1998) found that prejudice can be rationalized as a concern for justice. Opposition to preferential affirmative action programs (which assign more weight to certain demographics and give preference to target groups and their members) was uniquely predicted by an individual's belief in merit principles. That is, regardless of prejudice level, individuals tend to oppose preferential treatment programs because they violate traditional norms of meritocracy. However, the higher an individual's level of prejudice, the more likely he was to construe an undefined affirmative action program (e. g. not necessarily preferential) as violating the merit principle and, in turn, oppose the undefined affirmative action program. These high-prejudice individuals were able to rationalize their prejudice as a concern for justice, although no traditional justice norms had been explicitly violated. In this way, symbolic racism functions through rationalization as a concern for traditional norms without conscious awareness.
Public opinion researchers polled white Americans in the early 1970s on their backing for racial equality and their support for government intervention that would enforce that equality. The results revealed high levels of support from white Americans, ranging from 75 to nearly 100 percent, regarding the principles for school integration, equal opportunity employment, and open housing. Support from the same white Americans was significantly lower for implementation of abstract principles at approximately 50%.
College students who had completed a modern-symbolic prejudice measure early in the semester evaluated the résumés of 10 job applicants. The applicants consisted of three qualified blacks, two qualified whites, and five unqualified whites. The students were split into two groups: one containing students rated high in modern-symbolic prejudice and once containing students rated low. Each student received a memo from the president of the company. Half of the students received memos in which the president of the company asked the student to abstain from hiring a worker of a minority group because the person hired would be dealing mainly with white employees. The memo for the second group did not contain this message. The results were stark between the groups: the group that did not receive any instructions from the president of the company recommended a black candidate 61% of the time, regardless of the individual's modern-symbolic prejudice rating. In the group that had received justification from the president to abstain from minority hiring, 37% of the students low in modern-symbolic prejudice recommended a black candidate whereas only 18% of the students high in modern-symbolic prejudice recommended a black candidate. The results show that symbolic prejudice is expressed most strongly when non-explicitly racist justifications are given for discriminatory action.
While symbolic racism was originally conceptualized as a prejudice specifically against blacks in the United States due to their violation of cherished values, scholars have expanded the concept to apply it to other groups and other locales. In the United States, research has been conducted on symbolic racism as it relates to Latinos and Asians, as well as modern sexism, anti-fat bias, and heterosexism. For example, Mingying Fu conducted an experiment in which symbolic racism was shown to influence attitudes toward outgroup members and racial policies. In addition, Fu found that symbolic racism was the strongest predictor of white as well as Asian and Latino opposition to affirmative action after controlling for biological racism and ideology.
Fraser and Islam (2007) applied the concept of symbolic racism to the Aborigines and European Australians in Australia. In this context, the Australian version of the symbolic racism construct is defined as "the use of affective responses and beliefs that are well accepted within a dominant majority racial group as justifying its advantaged position". They measured the relationship between racial prejudice and support for Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party using two postal surveys based on a random sample of names from electoral registers. Support for Hansen and voting for the One Nation Party were strongly related to a measure of symbolic racism. The study also found a relationship between symbolic racism and a measure of relational orientation, or concern over the position of one's own racial group relative to other racial groups. Fraser and Islam state that this finding suggests that beliefs influenced by symbolic racism may be motivated by social identity processes, "where white European Australians regard their culture as the real, mainstream Australian culture, abs resent special concessions to groups such as Aborigines and Asian migrants, whom they exclude from their narrow self-identity as Australians."
Symbolic racism has implications for legal policies. Green et al. (2006) found a positive correlation between symbolic racism and punishing crime policies such as the death penalty and three strikes laws, and a negative relationship with policies that are intended to assist criminals such as inmate education.
Individual prejudices and opposition to programs to eliminate inequality of outcomes most likely contribute to institutional discrimination, which in turn leads to continued racial inequality.
Symbolic racism has been found to have a major effect on attitudes regarding legal policies and Black political candidates. It has been shown to be a predictor of attitudes towards busing, affirmative action, and welfare.
A major criticism is that new experimental studies show that respondents do not answer these questions differently when groups other than African Americans are mentioned in the survey questions. For instance, when other groups such as "Albanians," "Lithuanians," "Jordanians," "Taiwanese," etc. were substituted into the same symbolic racism questions, the pattern of responses is not significantly different from responses when African Americans are the group included in the question. This undermines a primary claim made by Sears et al. that their measure of symbolic racism is a blend of "anti-Black affect" and "conservatism." Enos and Carney (2018) write: "Across multiple groups and multiple samples on different survey platforms, we find a strong an consistent pattern: the results obtained using groups other than Blacks are substantially indistinguishable from those measured when Blacks are the target group. Decomposing this measure further, we find that political conservatives express only minor differences in resentment across target groups. Far greater differences in resentment toward Blacks and other groups can be found among racially sympathetic liberals. In short, we find that modern racism questions appear to measure attitudes toward any group, rather than African Americans alone."
One criticism of symbolic racism is that it has been conceptualized and measured inconsistently over time. Sometimes it has been conceptualized as consisting of a single construct and other times as consisting of multiple subdimensions. Most scholars now consistently describe symbolic racism as being composed of the four major components listed by Tarman and Sears. Tarman and Sears posit that consistently defining it as based on those four themes will eliminate the inconsistency problems. The updated symbolic racism scale, Symbolic Racism 2000 (SR2K), is believed to have addressed many issues in measurement inconsistency.
Another criticism is that symbolic racism is not true racism but a manifestation of conservative political ideology. For instance, if one believes that one group should receive "special favors" they would answer the question in a manner coded as more racially resentful. Tarman and Sears evaluated this claim and concluded that symbolic racism is an independent belief system encompassing discrete attitudes from those of conservatives.
Some scholars have suggested that the focus has moved prematurely from old-fashioned racism to modern racism. In a qualitative study, Mellor (2003) conducted interviews with Aboriginal Australians in which he discovered that many experience racism and that much of it is old-fashioned rather than modern. He argues that social scientists may have embraced forms of modern racism too quickly, which could have negative impacts on minorities by helping to maintain discriminatory social institutions.