White People's Racial Attitudes Are Changing to Match Partisanship

By Drew Engelhardt (@_amengel)

Conventional wisdom in American politics, held both by political observers and social scientists, is that whites’ views about racial and ethnic minorities structure their politics. These attitudes help explain the Constitution’s design, the provision of government services, and the structure of public opinion. Social science research indicates racial attitudes are learned early, even before kindergarten, and persist in much the same form over the course of a person’s life. This stability implies that these beliefs are explanations for politics and are not themselves direct political outcomes.

But this perspective cannot completely explain current political trends: whites’ evaluations of black Americans have shifted greatly in recent years. The data revealing these trends come from the American National Election Studies, nationally representative surveys of U.S. citizens 18 and older. The figure below focuses on surveys from 2016 and 2018, with interviews completed online. The plots show the distribution of racial resentment among non-Hispanic whites divided by party. Racial resentment is a well-validated measure of attributions for black Americans’ social and economic status, captured here by averaging together responses to four statements included in the ANES surveys. Lower levels of racial resentment correspond to more positive attitudes about black people and a greater emphasis on structural explanations for their position in the U.S. Higher values denote the reverse.

 
 

The data show a profound shift in whites’ evaluations of black Americans in just a two year period. The modal white Democrat moves from placing at the scale’s midpoint in 2016 to locating at the scale’s minimum (least racially resentful) in 2018. For Republicans, the modal respondent still places at the scale’s maximum (most resentful), but the percentage of white Republicans here increases from 14 percent to 21 percent. While these shifts may seem small given the scale, I show below they represent a rather substantial change on a measure that has otherwise evolved quite slowly since the 1980s.

The conventional wisdom would explain these shifts as whites switching parties to align with their racial attitudes. President Trump’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants and racial minorities reinforces a decades-old picture that the Republican Party is less open to advancing the interests of people of color. Consequently, Democrats holding negative attitudes about people of color, here black Americans, switch parties. And vice versa for Republicans who view black people more positively.

But such partisan switching is highly unlikely in today’s more contentious political context. And especially so on race, where the parties have taken clear and consistent positions here for decades. Democrats and Republicans whose racial attitudes were inconsistent with their party’s position on race have had plenty of time to learn these positions and adopt new party loyalties if this inconsistency bothered them.

What is more likely is that these distributional shifts come from whites’ changing their attitudes about black Americans to align with their partisan attachments. Indeed, in part of my dissertation work I uncover evidence for this explanation. Using panel data that allow me to assess the relationship between racial attitudes and partisanship for the same white respondents over time, I find that more whites are changing their attitudes about black Americans than are switching parties. Whites’ partisanship and racial attitudes are becoming increasingly aligned, and this is more a product of attitude change than shifting partisan attachments.

Further, this trend is not a uniquely Trump phenomenon. It predates him. To that point, the figure below presents average levels of racial resentment among white people by party from 1986, when these items were first included in the ANES, through 2018. In the late 1980s, partisans differed little in their attitudes about black Americans. This started to change in the 2000s as Republicans’ attitudes become on average more resentful. But between 2012 and 2016 white Democrats experience a substantial decline in their average levels of racial resentment. And as the dotted lines show, this trend persists through 2018 looking at only the web version of the surveys.

 
englehardt_fig2.png
 

White Democrats in this period are unique. Not only do their attitudes exhibit a substantial amount of change, the decline in racial resentment between 2016 and 2018 is matched by changes in how they feel about racial groups captured by other survey questions. Using a measure of group favorability, where 0 is very unfavorable feelings and 100 is very favorable feelings, in 2018 Democrats rated black people at a 77, up 7 points from 2016. But they rated white at a 70, a 2 point decrease. Republicans’ feelings about black people improved slightly (64 vs 69) in these two years but this was far outpaced by increased warmth toward white people (74 vs 81).

While Republicans consistently feel more positively about white people than black people, white Democrats’ attitudes look quite different. White Democrats now feel more warmly toward black people than white people. These changes have potential implications for the Democratic primary. Several candidates have endorsed race-conscious policies to address racial inequality. Attitudes about policy beneficiaries profoundly structure people’s opinions on these policies. That white Democrats increasingly view beneficiaries favorably suggests that they are on average open to candidates taking these positions where in the past they may have preferred candidates who were more moderate or even conservative on racial issues.

White Democrats’ attitudes about black Americans have changed substantially in recent years, and these patterns are not unique to the Trump era. That race fundamentally shapes politics in the United States gives the fact that white people in one of the major parties increasingly view black people positively, perhaps even more so than their own racial group, profound implications for future political and policy contests. If these trends continue, then the Democratic Party will be made up of people increasingly open to arguments about structural racism and policy solutions tackling these barriers. Where mass Democrats were once more divided on race, attitudinal changes among Whites have reduced the degree to which racial concerns separate them from their co-partisans of color. Race may do less to divide Democrats, and may even serve to unite them, especially when juxtaposed with positions the Republican Party takes.


Drew Engelhardt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Vanderbilt University. He studies political behavior and public opinion with a focus on individuals’ identities and intergroup attitudes.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Direct Action Gets The Goods

Last Friday, the teachers in Sacramento overwhelmingly voted to strike - its first in nearly 30 years. Less than three months into 2019, already teachers have mobilized in Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Even before Sacramento, 2019’s teacher strikes affected millions of students, with nearly 100,000 teachers in work stoppages - more than any year between 1993 and 2017.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

The Crisis Of Voter Turnout In Public Housing

Using the New York State voterfile made available by the New York State Board of Elections, Data for Progress geocoded active voters to understand the role that public housing status plays in election turnout. Here, we focus on turnout in the November 8, 2016 general election. While statewide turnout in 2016 was about 57 percent of the vote-eligible population, here we report turnout as a percent of those who are active on the NYS voterfile. Using the active voterfile as the denominator, our reported numbers will appear higher than this 57 percent baseline. This is because we report turnout among active voters, not among the entire vote-eligible population.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Neighborhood Defenders and the Capture of Land Use Politics

Many American cities are facing housing crises, with rapidly escalating prices placing homeownership, reasonable commutes, and even safe and secure housing out of the reach of middle- and lower-income Americans. Most economists believe that, to address this problem, we need to increase the supply of market-rate housing in these high-cost cities. Despite widespread consensus on the need to build more housing, housing shortages persist across many urban areas. Why, if most informed observers, and many city leaders, believe that we need more housing, are most cities failing to keep pace with growing housing demand?

The answer may lie in the politics of housing, and the institutions cities have created to control land use. Land use regulations can directly forbid the construction of high-density development and restrict the supply of housing. But, they may also reduce housing production by creating a political process that amplifies the voices of housing opponents. Land use regulations create opportunities for members of the public to have a say in the housing development process. Many types of housing proposals require public hearings which solicit input from neighborhood residents. This is by design. After the excesses of urban renewal, many localities turned to neighborhood-oriented processes as a check against developer dominance. But, like many participatory institutions, these land use forums may be vulnerable to capture by advantaged neighborhood residents eager to preserve home values, exclusive access to public goods, and community character.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

An Update on Elizabeth Warren's Housing Plan

Yesterday, Elizabeth Warren reintroduced her expansive housing bill, including several notable additions since we released our analysis. We are not above humblebragging that it incorporates some of our suggestions. Though it still doesn’t include everything we think is necessary for a transformative progressive housing agenda, her willingness to take feedback and improve her proposal is a testament to how seriously Warren is taking housing.  So far, no other candidate can claim that. Here’s what’s new.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

The Public Supports Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico

There are 4.4 million American citizens who do not have voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are all technically part of the United States, but have no voice in the federal government since they are not states. This can have very real consequences; in the disastrous wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans had no one to advocate for them in Washington. More fundamentally, this lack of representation goes against everything America stands for. We are the oldest and largest democracy on the planet, yet we routinely ignore the concerns of millions of our citizens.

In recent years, the question of DC and Puerto Rican statehood has gained prominence, especially among progressives. The other territories are generally considered too small to become states, but DC has more residents than either Vermont or Wyoming, while Puerto Rico would become the 29th most populous state. Both also contribute significantly to the federal economy. Though Puerto Ricans don’t have to pay federal income taxes, they still pay a variety of payroll taxes, sales taxes, and tariffs that cumulatively add up to more than the taxes paid by six states. Similarly, DC paid more in federal taxes than 22 states in 2015. Yet neither of these territories have any say in what taxes are leveled. As DC license plates say, this is a clear case of taxation without representation.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Supporting DC Statehood is Practical Politics

On Friday, the newly Democratic-led House passed HR1 which includes, among many commonsense voting reforms and electoral protections, endorsement of DC statehood. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first-ever piece of legislation to pass the House officially endorsing voting rights for the District, which has a higher population than Wyoming, Vermont, and every other non-voting US territory besides Puerto Rico.

From January 25 to 29, 2019, Data for Progress fielded a survey of 1,282 US voters with YouGov Blue. On that survey, we asked voters about statehood for both Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. While Republicans were quick to attack HR1 as a “power grab,” our results were clear: DC statehood and Puerto Rico statehood are both popular.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Six Graphs Show The Green New Deal Is A Winner

The political economy is lining up behind a Green New Deal, but support among Democrats and Republicans in the Senate seems to be lagging.

When U.S. Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts introduced a resolution in the Senate calling for the creation of a Green New Deal in early February, it had 12 Democratic cosponsors, including Markey. In a month’s time, it still has...12 cosponsors. Opinion-makers will say that the seeminging untenable and tangential components of the resolution are keeping other Democrats away--the general commitments to universal healthcare, affordable housing, and economic security. Yet these goals are just that: aspirations of what the Federal government should aim to achieve for the country, not specific policy prescriptions that chain a Senator to vote they might regret in the future.

What is conveyed more concretely in the Green New Deal resolution is the large mobilization of federal resources to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable, and carbon-free energy and create millions of new jobs in the process. This transition is not some “green pipe dream”; it’s actually underway and quite far along in some states.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Introducing The Progressive Virginia Project

This year, the entire Virginia state legislature is up for election. Democrats are currently favored to take the House of Delegates and State Senate, which means the next session has enormous potential for ambitious progressive policies like a state-level Green New Deal.

But that won’t happen if Dominion Energy continues to run the state.

We need true progressives to replace corporate Dominion Energy allies in the House of Delegates and State Senate.

That’s why we’re launching the Progressive Virginia Project, to support progressives in Virginia’s upcoming primaries.

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

data data data data data

data data data data

Read More

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required