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.

 
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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.

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