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date: 11 April 2021

Racial Prejudice, Racial Identity, and Attitudes in Political Decision Makingfree

  • Ashley JardinaAshley JardinaDepartment of Political Science, Duke University
  •  and Spencer PistonSpencer PistonDepartment of Political Science, Boston University


A great deal of work in the domain of race and politics has focused on two phenomena: racial prejudice and racial solidarity. Scholarship on racial prejudice has primarily examined the nature and consequences of white racial animus, particularly toward blacks. In the latter half of the 20th century, in the post-Civil Rights era, scholars argued that racial prejudice had been transformed, as most whites rejected the belief that there were innate, biological differences between racial groups. Instead, whites came to embrace the belief that blacks did not subscribe to particular cultural values associated with the protestant work ethic. While these attitudes profoundly shape public opinion and political behavior in the United States, we suspect that there has been a resurgence in the belief that consequential biological differences between racial groups exist, and that biological racism is a growing force in American politics. Most of the development of work on racial consciousness has examined the effects of racial solidarity among racial and ethnic minorities on public opinion. Individuals’ psychological attachments to their racial group are an important element in American politics, and their importance may increase as the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse.


In 1938, The Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal to study race relations in the United States. The resulting tome, An American Dilemma (1944), called sharp attention to racial discrimination in the United States. It served as a moral wakeup call to Americans, who were fighting Nazi racism abroad while the oppressive system of Jim Crow enforced racial segregation in the American South. The book also challenged the view of many social scientists that social problems should be observed, but left alone, without the interference of government or other entities, to try to remedy them (Dunbar, 1983).

In the wake of the atrocities of World War II and the publication of An American Dilemma, the position of social scientists began to shift. They turned their attention in earnest to the study of racial prejudice, focusing particularly on whites’ attitudes toward blacks. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and modern women’s movement, the attention of social scientists changed once again, and they began to focus not only on out-group prejudice, but also on racial group identities, group solidarity, and collective action.

The legacy of this work from the mid-20th century continues to influence modern social science. Both racial prejudice and racial solidarity are tightly linked to political attitudes and behavior, although scholars disagree on how, when, for which political attitudes, and among which groups prejudice and racial identity matter. This article describes the current landscape of work in these domains, consider important gaps in existing literature, and offer ideas for future work. The first section of the article focuses primarily on the nature of white racial attitudes and describes how profoundly implicated they are in white public opinion. It also calls for a new emphasis in the direction of work on contemporary white racism, arguing that new scholarship should pay increased attention to erroneous beliefs about biological and innate differences between racial groups. The second section of the article highlights work on the development of racial solidarity among minority racial groups, focusing in particular on how racial identity, racial linked fate, and racial consciousness influence public opinion.

Racial Prejudice

We begin by reviewing existing research on racial prejudice, with particular attention to white prejudice against black people. Despite substantial disagreement over how prejudice should be measured, scholars have presented clear and compelling evidence that racial prejudice is widespread and consequential. In many cases prejudice against blacks is among the most powerful forces shaping political preferences.

Scholars define prejudice in many different ways. As W. E. B. DuBois (1899) argued in his classic work, The Philadelphia Negro, “everyone knows that [prejudice] exists, but in just what form it shows itself or how influential it is few agree.” Gordon Allport’s (1954) conceptualization of prejudice is perhaps the best known among social scientists. Allport defined prejudice as “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.”1

Of particular interest is whether prejudice in the 21st century is biological or cultural in form. That is, do the prejudiced consider racial outgroups to be inherently inferior as a matter of biological destiny, or is their inferiority limited to cultural pathologies, as many modern theories of racial attitudes suggest? Most social science scholarship, under the umbrella of the term “new racism,” comes down on the cultural side of this dividing line. Hutchings (2015), who is somewhat critical of this narrow focus of contemporary research on racial attitudes, observes that “there is a near consensus among scholars that more modern forms of prejudice have generally displaced ‘old-fashioned’ forms of racial bias” such as biological racism. This section’s review of the study of racial prejudice in the social sciences corroborates Hutchings’ skepticism. Next, after presenting evidence from studies suggesting that some scholars have been too quick to close the book on biological racism, this section concludes with a summary of developments that suggest that biological racism may be resurging.

Biological Racism: The Early Years

The concept of race became widely used in the 18th century as a means of justification for European and American colonization and the enslavement of Africans. As Smedley and Smedley write, “In an era when the dominant political philosophy was equality, civil rights, democracy, justice, and freedom for all human beings, the only way Christians could justify slavery was to demote Africans to nonhuman status” (2005, p. 19). These sentiments continued into the 19th century, with scientists, phrenologists, and others claiming that some “races” were less evolved than others. Relying greatly on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, many argued that humans had evolved from apes, and that different groups were higher or lower on an evolutionary spectrum ranging from ape to fully-evolved human.

These arguments were made popular by prominent physician, Josiah Nott, and his colleague, George Gliddon, in their book Types of Mankind (1854). In the text, they promoted the belief that blacks ranked between the archetypal humans—Greeks—and chimpanzees. Nott and Gliddon’s views became the mainstream in American thought on race, and their book was considered an especially influential American text (Gould, 1981). It is impossible to dismiss the significance of these arguments for America’s social and political development; they became central to justifications for slavery, bigotry, and the repeated efforts to strip blacks and other groups of their basic human rights.

It was well into the 20th century before scientific racism was finally denounced as obsolete. Elites began to criticize scientific racism in the 20th century, and it was more fully condemned following World War II, most formally in a statement by UNESCO (1950). Even then, infamous scholarship such as The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) continued to echo the troubling and unfounded claims of the 19th and early 20th centuries. On balance, however, academic and political elites became substantially less willing to endorse the proposition that black people are biologically inferior to whites (Kinder & Sanders, 1996).

Closing the Door on Biological Racism

It is now a commonplace claim in the social sciences that a new form of racism, cultural racism, emerged in the 1960s, taking the place of biological racism. This conventional wisdom is due in no small part to the scholarship of David Sears and Donald Kinder, who began their collaboration by tracing the impact of racial prejudice on policy preferences and candidate support in Los Angeles (Sears & Kinder, 1971). These researchers then developed the theory of symbolic racism, which holds that white reactions to the Civil Rights movement and urban riots of the late 1960s spurred the emergence of a new form of racism that did not posit the biological inferiority of black people, but rather fused antipathy toward blacks with the belief that black people violate the Protestant work ethic (Kinder & Sears, 1981). One of their enduring contributions was a measure of racial resentment which has been used extensively in the literature. Subsequent work has argued that this measure, generally comprising four survey items, can be recast as capturing structural versus individual attributions for blacks’ economic and social circumstances, and that it can meaningfully capture attitudes among both black and white Americans (Kam & Burge, 2018).

The research of Sears and Kinder ushered in a wave of theories and measures of “new racism” in political science, sociology, and psychology. For example, the concept of “laissez-faire racism” reflects sociologists Bobo and Smith’s (1998) view that “[w]e have witnessed the virtual disappearance of overt bigotry,” and it has been replaced with “notions of black cultural inferiority.” Similarly, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2017, p. 274) argues that “cultural racism . . . has supplanted biological racism in importance and effectiveness” (see also Mcconahay & Hough, 1976). While efforts to pursue this line of inquiry vary in many respects, they share a common conceptual thread—that biological racism has all but disappeared; that it has been replaced with a new form of racism; and that under this new form of racism, blacks are viewed as culturally, but not biologically, deficient. Many scholars of racial attitudes in the social sciences concur with Bobo and colleagues (2012, p. 74) that, “the categorical belief that blacks were inherently and biologically inferior to whites has collapsed.”

Contemporary Scholarship on Racial Attitudes

In 2009, Leonie Huddy and Stanley Feldman wrote in their review of racial attitudes scholarship that, “There is still no broad consensus on the extent to which racial prejudice influences white Americans’ political attitudes, in part because of an ongoing dispute over the nature and measurement of racial prejudice.” About a decade later, debates about how to measure racial prejudice continue—yet scholarship increasingly points to the conclusion that prejudice against black people powerfully influences white political preferences.2

One unresolved measurement issue concerns the utility of implicit prejudice, defined as automatic prejudice thought to lie below the level of conscious awareness. As Christopher Parker’s (2016) review notes, measures of implicit prejudice have enormous potential, not least because of their promise to sidestep social desirability effects. Yet the lion’s share of evidence suggests that implicit measures of white attitudes toward blacks have poor predictive power, after controlling for explicit measures, when it comes to outcomes of interest to political scientists (Ditonto, Lau, & Sears, 2013; Kalmoe & Piston, 2013). On the other hand, research on implicit attitudes toward racial groups other than blacks has uncovered stronger effects. Efren Pérez (2016) finds that implicit attitudes toward Latino immigrants are associated with opinion about exclusionary immigration policy within the US mass public. Similarly, Cindy Kam (2007) finds that even after holding constant explicit measures of prejudice toward Hispanics, implicit prejudice against Hispanics is negatively associated with support for a Hispanic candidate—though only in the absence of a partisan cue.

A second issue revolves around whether racial attitudes are a function of perceived threat and realistic group conflict, or whether they are a function of socialized predispositions. Some scholarship on racial attitudes written in the middle of the 20th century, including work by Blalock (1967) and Key (1949), suggested that white antipathy toward blacks was a function of the perceived threat blacks posed toward the political, social, and economic status of whites, often via the size and proximity of the local black population. Scholars such as Bobo and Hutchings (1996), and Klinkner and Smith (1999) have extended this line of thinking, arguing that white racial prejudice is a function of whites’ perception that racial and ethnic minorities are encroaching on whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy. Sears and Kinder, however, take a different approach, arguing that contemporary racial attitudes, like racial resentment, are learned predispositions. Individuals acquire these attitudes through socialization as children, and many bring them to bear on their political evaluations as adults.

An additional debate centers on disagreement over which measure best captures explicit racial prejudice. In particular, the Racial Resentment Scale has been a flashpoint for criticism, although it has also been vigorously defended by its proponents. Generally, debate over the construct centers around whether racial resentment is indeed capturing racial prejudice, or if it is instead conflated with the expression of conservative ideology and individualism (Carmines, Sniderman, & Easter, 2011; Sniderman & Tetlock, 1986). And Schuman argues that the measure of racial resentment is undermined by the fact that it is actually a measure of racial policy attitudes—the very thing it is intended to explain (Schuman, 2000). We will not review this debate in greater detail here, as it has been covered extensively elsewhere (e.g., Huddy & Feldman, 2009; Hutchings & Piston, 2011). For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that a plethora of measures of explicit racial prejudice exist, some of which have only recently appeared (e.g., Desante & Smith, 2017; Wilson & Davis, 2011). Researchers who seek measures for their studies of white prejudice against blacks are confronted with an embarrassment of riches.

While researchers may not agree about which measure of prejudice is best, it is nonetheless the case that analyses using many different measures of prejudice tend to yield findings that run in the same direction. The first of these is that white prejudice against blacks is widespread. For example, Yadon and Piston’s forthcoming analysis of a nationally representative sample of white respondents in the 2016 American National Election Studies time series survey finds that 57% of these respondents rate blacks as lazier than whites. Second, in many cases prejudice against African Americans is negatively associated with white support for a variety of policies, including equal opportunity in employment, government-led downward economic redistribution; school desegregation, spending on programs to assist blacks, paying college athletes, and affirmative action for blacks in hiring and college admissions (e.g., Kinder & McConnaughy, 2006; Wallsten, Nteta, McCarthy, & Tarsi, 2017)—while also propping up support for the Confederate flag (Strother, Piston, & Ogorzalek, 2017) and punitive criminal justice policies that disproportionately affect blacks (e.g., Bobo & Johnson, 2004).

A third set of findings indicate that prejudice against blacks can undermine white support for black candidates (Krupnikov & Piston, 2015a; Krupnikov, Piston, & Bauer, 2016; Tesler & Sears, 2010), and has shaped whites’ reactions to the nation’s first black presidency (Nteta, Lisi, & Tarsi, 2016; Parker & Barreto, 2013; Parker, Sawyer, & Towler, 2009; Piston, 2010). Fourth, and finally, the power of prejudice against blacks on political preferences is conditional—dependent on issue framing, elite rhetoric, news media communication, and the circumstances of a campaign (Krupnikov & Piston, 2015b; Nelson & Kinder, 1996; Piston, Krupnikov, Milita, & Ryan, 2018).

While our focus here is on white prejudice against blacks, it is also worth noting that studies of Latinos’ racial attitudes have also uncovered evidence of animosity toward blacks (Barreto & Sanchez, 2014; Bobo & Hutchings, 1996; McClain et al., 2006; Mindiola, Niemann, & Rodriguez, 2002) and associations between prejudice against blacks and Latinos’ political preferences (Krupnikov & Piston, 2016). The evidence is clear. Racial prejudice is a central element of public opinion.

Reopening The Door: Evidence Suggestive of the Persistence of Biological Racism

In this section we present reasons to question whether cultural racism has indeed supplanted biological racism. The first of these is that it possible that survey measures that are intended to capture cultural racism are in practice contaminated with biologically racist attitudes. Consider the following question from the racial resentment scale, in agree/ disagree format: “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.” At first glance, this question appears to get at cultural, rather than biological, explanations for racial disparities. But the question never asks why blacks do not try as hard as whites. As Gilens (1999) notes, the stereotype that black people are lazy is not a new form of racism—it is “centuries-old.” When Carl Linnaeus (1758) introduced the race concept in the definitive 10th edition of Systemae Naturae, he listed five subspecies of humans; according to this taxonomy, Africans, or Homo sapiens afer, were distinguished from the other subspecies in no small part on the basis of their laziness. Historically, then, the stereotype that black people are lazy has been part and parcel of biological racism. New racism scholars have yet to present direct evidence that this is no longer true.3

To be sure, over-time survey data indicates that at least some forms of biological racism declined during the 20th century.4 For example, Bobo and colleagues (2012) show that while in 1977, about 25% of white respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) attributed economic disparities between blacks and whites to “inborn differences” between the races, by 2008 this had dropped to about 10% (see also Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Schuman, Steeh, Bobo, & Krysan, 1997). However, additional survey evidence suggests that while biological racism has significantly declined, it may remain more widespread than is commonly believed. For example, Huddy and Feldman (2009) criticize the GSS question for requiring a “blunt” yes or no answer to the question of whether inborn differences explain racial disparities. They modify the response options, so that survey participants are asked “how much” of the racial gap in economic outcomes can be explained by inborn differences—and find that only about 60% respond “none,” meaning that a significant proportion of respondents attribute racial economic disparities to biological differences between the races. Furthermore, much existing research on biologically racist attitudes typically does little to mitigate the influence of social desirability pressures, which may lead respondents to report their attitudes dishonestly. One exception, an unpublished manuscript by Brueckner, Morning and Nelson (2005), finds that estimates of biological racism increase substantially if a list experiment is used rather than a direct question. Biological racism has declined, but that does not mean it has disappeared.

Implicit measures also suggest that biological racism may remain common among the American public, at least at the unconscious level. Across multiple studies, social psychologists Goff, Eberhardt, and their colleagues (2008) and Goff, Jackson, Di Leone, Culotta, and DiTomasso (2014) find compelling evidence that many individuals harbor widespread, automatic and subconscious associations between African Americans and apes—and that these dehumanizing attitudes are bound up with public support for criminal justice policy. Building on this work, political scientist Steven Moore (2017) has developed original measures of implicit dehumanization of black people, and finds that responses to his items correlate with political preferences, even after taking explicit dehumanization of black people into account.

A Resurgence of Biological Racism? Trends Among Academic and Political Elites

Existing research on racial attitudes suffers from another limitation as well: it has been slow to take into account long-term trends in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and American political discourse. These trends may have worked in conjunction to legitimize biologically racist attitudes among the white American public.

The first of these trends is the promulgation of a large body of research in the natural sciences suggesting that genetic disorders are differentially distributed across racial groups (Duster, 2003). In turn, biologically essentialist definitions of race have been on the rise in science textbooks since the mid-20th century (Morning, 2008). As a related example, a nursing textbook published by Pearson in 2017 attracted controversy after it became widely publicized that the textbook posited that black people had different average levels of pain sensitivity than other racial groups.5 Furthermore, content analysis has revealed that news articles discussing racial differences in the genetic bases of diseases have increased significantly since the mid-1980s (Phelan, Link, & Feldman, 2013). Little is yet known about the consequences of this development (but see Condit, Parrott, Harris, Lynch, & Dubriwny, 2004) for racial attitudes among the American public at large. As Pierre Bourdieu writes, it is likely that, “Today the new genetics brings a ‘halo of legitimacy’ to racist and reactionary stereotypes” (Bourdieu, 2003, p. vi).

Genetic explanations for social outcomes appear to be gaining increasing prominence in the social sciences as well. In political science, articles have argued that genetic inheritance accounts for individual-level variation in partisanship (Settle, Dawes, & Fowler, 2009), voter turnout (Dawes & Fowler, 2009), and racial attitudes (Kinder & Kam, 2010). Scholarship in economics, meanwhile, argued that interethnic conflict has a genetic basis (Arbatli, Ashraf, & Galor, 2015). An article in 2013 in the American Economic Review, the flagship journal of the American Economics Association, argued that the nature of genetic diversity in Africa has been “detrimental” for the economic development of the continent (Ashraf & Galor, 2013). This claim was echoed by others, including former deputy editor of Nature and retired New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade in his book A Troublesome Inheritance (2014).

It is likely that the growing acceptability of genetic explanations for racial differences in human disease, human behavior, and socioeconomic outcomes legitimizes biological racism in the American public.6 For example, in a survey by sociologists Byrd and Ray (2015), their white respondents, on average, report that genes are more influential over the traits and behaviors of blacks than whites. Phelan, Link, and Feldman (2013) find that exposure to a news story reporting racial differences in heart attack risk caused study subjects to believe more strongly in essential racial differences. Thus, there is already some evidence that the resurgence of genetics in elite conversations about race and human behavior undermines political efforts to reach a more racially egalitarian society. As Byrd and Hughey (2015) wrote, “This dangerous synthesis of beliefs limits policy redress of racial inequality, as the fact that inequality is the result of man-made efforts is dispensed for a supposedly scientific answer: Inequality is a genetic reality.”

As genetic explanations for racial differences in elite academic circles proliferate, another insidious force is gaining traction in contemporary American politics: the rise of white supremacists. These groups explicitly condone the belief that whites are inherently superior to non-whites, and they are increasingly turning to academic research in order to provide evidence for these beliefs. White supremacists are increasing their organizing activity at the grassroots level, as high-profile protests in the spring of 2017 from a white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia made clear. Furthermore, many whites with ideological beliefs consistent with these white supremacist groups have captured elite political positions in the Donald Trump’s presidential administration, including Steven Bannon (President Trump’s former chief strategist), Sebastian Gorka (Trump’s former deputy assistant), and Stephen Miller (Trump’s senior policy advisor). Other public figures associated with the alt-right, including Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, have increasingly brought claims of immutable racial differences into the mainstream. They have received substantial media attention, some of which has been remarkably sympathetic, from such mainstream news outlets as The New York Times and NPR).7 Increased coverage of white supremacists, particularly that which is normalizing in nature, may very well legitimize their beliefs about racial differences among white Americans.

President Trump himself has not only been slow to distance himself from white supremacists, but also has made numerous blatantly racist remarks throughout his presidential campaign and his presidency. Trump’s success in obtaining the highest office in the land, despite—or perhaps because of—his overt racism, eroded the “norm of racial equality” that political scientist Tali Mendelberg argues governed elite political discourse in previous decades (2001). There is also anecdotal evidence that Trump’s ascendancy legitimized racism in the United States. For instance, a wave of hate crimes swept the nation in the days following Trump’s election. Some of the harassers explicitly referenced Trump’s victory during the commission of their hate crime (e.g., one scrawl on a boys’ bathroom stall in a Minneapolis high school the day after the election read “#fuckallporchmonkeys” and “Trump train”).8 In addition, one experimental study found that increasing subjects’ perceptions that Trump is popular among the American public made them more likely to publicly express xenophobic views (Bursztyn, Egorov, & Fiorin, 2017). As journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris argues, “it’s a chilling development for those who see the social norms and lines in the sand that once provided them with a small modicum of dignity and protection fading away.”9

Racial Identity and Racial Consciousness

In 1966, near the end of the days of greatest prominence for the Civil Rights movement, Matthews and Prothro published an extensive study on black political participation in the American South. One of their central findings was that for blacks, “an interest in and identification with members of the race” (p. 446) was integral to political leadership and political participation. They were the first of a line of scholars to focus on group identity—or “an individual’s awareness of belonging to a certain group and having a psychological attachment to that group based on perceptions of shared beliefs, feelings, interests, and ideas with other group members” (McClain, Carew, Walton, & Watt, 2009, p. 474). They, and others, argue that blacks’ identification and solidarity with their in-group is significantly tied to their political attitudes and behavior (Allen, Dawson, & Brown, 1989).

Research in this vein took off roughly around the time that the study of group identities more broadly was burgeoning in the field of social psychology. One of the dominant theories of group identity to be borne of these efforts is social identity theory (SIT), which argues that group identities are derived primarily from group membership (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971). SIT theory has been foundational to understanding the relationship between group attitudes and political behavior (see Huddy, 2001 for a summary), but many of its tenets have not been extended to the study of racial identity in the United States.

In particular, SIT views in-group favoritism as a key ingredient of intergroup conflict and animosity, and has often been applied to studying the origins of prejudice and animosity. But the study of group identity among blacks has focused primarily on blacks’ preference for policies that support their group, and on behavior intended to elevate their group’s status and to overcome discrimination, rather than on opposition to out-groups (although see Herring, Jankowski, & Brown, 1999, and Sniderman & Piazza, 2002). Much of the work that followed Matthews and Prothro has attended to the relationship between blacks’ racial solidarity and political preferences or behavior, and especially to their levels of political participation (Bobo & Gilliam, 1990; Chong & Rogers, 2005; Shingles, 1981; Verba and Nie, 1972). McClain and colleagues (2009), for instance, argued that as a deprived group, blacks’ “development of self-conscious awareness of one’s group membership” (p. 150) helped them overcome barriers to political participation they faced as a result of their lower socioeconomic status.

Extending the work on racial identity, a number of scholars have focused on the concepts of group consciousness and linked fate. Consciousness goes beyond group identity; it concerns an attachment to one’s group, coupled with a set of ideological beliefs about the group’s status and a consensus around collective action intended to change the group’s status (Conover & Sapiro, 1993; Masuoka, 2006; McClain et al., 2009; Miller, Gurin, Gurin, & Malanchuk, 1981). The concept has been applied to understanding the attitudes and behavior of a number of social groups, especially those that are marginalized in society. The study of racial consciousness in particular gained important traction, with scholars noting its key role in predicting black political mobilization, participation, and policy preferences (Chong & Rogers, 2005; Clawson & Waltenburg, 2008; Dawson, 1994; Harris-Lacewell, 2004; Jackson, 1987; Miller et al., 1981; Nunnally, 2012; Olsen, 1970; Tate, 1993).

Linked fate, or interdependence, is a closely related concept. It is defined as a cognitive heuristic, or mental shortcut, that allows individuals to use the status of their group as a proxy for their own preferences and behavior. Linked fate has been best conceptualized by Dawson (1994), who refers to linked fate among blacks as the “black utility heuristic.” According to Dawson, blacks’ shared experience of discrimination in the United States has led many of them to view their own individual fates as inextricably tied to that of their racial group. He finds that black linked fate is strongly associated with blacks’ candidate evaluations, support for redistributive policies, and for attitudes toward explicitly racialized polices, such as busing and government efforts to improve the economic conditions of blacks.

Extending Theories of Group Solidarity

As the United States has become more racially and ethnically diverse, researchers have extended the concepts of racial identity, racial consciousness, and linked fate to understanding the political attitudes of other racial and ethnic minority groups. Some, however, are skeptical of the extent to which these concepts should be employed to understand the attitudes and behaviors of groups other than blacks. As McClain and colleagues write, “we should take a step back to consider the implications of employing concepts intricately intertwined with the oppressive history of blacks in the United States, and measures developed during a time of civil rights activism, civil strife, and racial conflict between white and black Americans” (2009, p. 479). Not only might existing measures and approaches not translate well to other groups, but scholars might be overestimating the extent to which the social and political experiences of Latinos and Asians lead to the development of political consequential senses of group solidarity. Indeed, there is evidence that members of these groups do not uniformly perceive discrimination against their group—an important ingredient for the development of group consciousness (Darity, Dietrich, & Hamilton, 2005).

Nevertheless, scholars have proceeded, albeit with mixed results, to examine the presence of group identity and group consciousness among other racial and ethnic minority groups (Jones-Correa & Leal, 1996; Leighley & Vedlitz, 1999; Lien, 1994; Sanchez, 2006; Stokes, 2003). Much work thus far has focused on the challenges posed to the formation of a monolithic Asian American or Latino American identity. For one, members of both groups have heritages from many different nations of origin. Indeed, the groups that scholars place under the pan-ethnic “Asian American” label do not share the same language. Such diversity means that Asian Americans may favor a national origin identity over a pan-ethnic identification (Tam, 1995). Furthermore, many Asian Americans are less likely to experience the markers of social and racial discrimination than are blacks and Latinos. Asian Americans are more economically integrated with whites, have higher occupational statuses and higher levels of education, and are less likely to reside in ethnic enclaves (Zhou & Lee, 2007). Perhaps for these reasons, Asian Americans are less likely than Latinos and blacks to have a sense of linked fate (Sanchez & Masuoka, 2010). At the same time, there is some evidence that some Asian Americans do indeed possess a pan-ethnic identity, although levels vary depending on nation of origin, socioeconomic factors, and experiences with discrimination (Masuoka, 2006). It also seems that this identity may need to be activated in order to be politically relevant (Junn & Masuoka, 2008).

Scholars have been similarly skeptical of the development of a pan-ethnic group identity among Latinos (Jones-Correa & Leal, 1996). There is some evidence that Latinos do see themselves as a distinct racial group, especially when one compares Latinos born in the United States to foreign-born Latinos (Fraga, Garcia, Hero, Jones-Correa, Martinez-Ebers, & Segura, 2012). Furthermore, as is the case for Asian Americans, Latino identity is a function of socioeconomic status, levels of acculturation, and perceptions of discrimination (Barreto & Pedraza, 2009; Masuoka, 2006; Stokes-Brown, 2012). It is also predictive of political participation and engagement (Masuoka, 2008), although the extent to which that is the case may vary among Latino subgroups and by levels of national identity (Schildkraut, 2005; Stokes, 2003). And, importantly, work has shown that Latino identity may be forged through social movements. Debates over immigration and other relevant issues might therefore elevate rates of identification among this group moving forward (Zepeda-Millán & Wallace, 2013).

In contrast to the proliferation of work linking racial identity to political attitudes and behavior, the study of racial identity among whites has been muted. Many scholars have argued that as the dominant group in American society, whites are far less likely to experience discrimination than racial and ethnic minorities, and are therefore far more likely to identify with their national identity than with a racial identity (Doane, 1997; Perry, 2001; Sears & Savalei, 2006). Consequently, most of the work on racial attitudes among whites has focused on their orientations toward racial out-groups. Yet Jardina (2019) shows that in the post-Obama era, and in the wake of the nation’s rapid ethnic and racial diversity over the past decade, many whites do indeed identify with their racial group, perhaps as a result of threats to their racial status brought about by the growing political and social power of people of color. What is more, this identity is strongly linked to support for social welfare policies that disproportionately benefit whites, such as Social Security and Medicare. It is also associated with anti-immigration opinion, opposition to Barack Obama, and support for Donald Trump. Similarly, Schildkraut (2015) finds that whites high on racial identity prefer white political candidates. Thus, there is evidence that racial identity plays an important role in political decision-making across racial and ethnic groups in the United States.


This article has outlined and clarified the ways in which scholars understand the role of racial attitudes and racial identity as they apply to political decision-making. With respect to racial out-group attitudes, the article argues that the increased acceptability of genetic explanations for racial differences among academic elites works jointly with the increased acceptability of racist remarks in American political discourse, potentially legitimizing biological racism among the white American public. In this context, it is troubling that racial attitudes scholarship has become dominated by theories of modern, cultural racism. In particular, the Racial Resentment Scale—perhaps the most commonly used measure of racial prejudice in political science—is intended to capture a form of racism thought never to have existed prior to the mid-20th century (Kinder & Sanders, 1996). Similarly, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s landmark book Racism Without Racists (5th edition, 2017) describes a “new racial ideology” in which some white people attribute racial inequality to “market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations.” Bonilla-Silva refers to this ideology as “racism lite.”

Racism Without Racists is an important book, and we seek no quarrel with it here. We merely suggest that scholarship on racism should include racists—a more sizeable group than many scholars have recognized. Biological racists—those who believe that racial groups are biologically distinct, and that some groups are inherently superior to others—remain with us today. This article is written at a time when white supremacists are gaining power in American society and politics, while genetic explanations for racial differences are gaining legitimacy in higher education. It is especially important in these dangerous times that scholars learn more about biological racism: where it comes from, how it influences political preferences, if it is resurging in contemporary times, and how it can be countered.

Out-group attitudes are not, of course, the only racial attitudes that influence political preferences and behavior. This article has also discussed the role of racial identity and racial consciousness. These dispositions have been widely applied to studying black political behavior, and especially to understanding black political participation. They have been extended to understanding the political attitudes and behavior of other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, especially in the wake of massive demographic changes that have led the country to become much more diverse. Much of this new work has considered the extent to which Asian Americans and Latinos possess politically meaningful group identities. The work in this domain has been mixed, but promising. What is more, scholars are also exploring the role of racial identity among white Americans—an identity that might be more politically potent as group identities among racial and ethnic minorities develop.

We end by noting that in the contemporary political climate, understanding the nature, prevalence, and political consequences of racial attitudes and racial identities is crucial. It is clear that race is central to American politics, and there is still much work to be done to better unpack how, why, and for whom prejudice, animosity, and group solidarity matter. And as the United States changes along dimensions of race and ethnicity, scholarship needs to consistently rethink and reexamine the role of race in American politics.



  • 1. See Sniderman (2017) for a review of definitions of prejudice in the social sciences. Sniderman concludes that these definitions, while varied, share a common conceptual core, in which prejudice is “bound up with antipathy.”

  • 2. We do not here review scholarship that identifies racial attitudes that may lead whites to favor blacks over their own group in their judgments about policy and candidates for public office (e.g., work to be published by Chudy, Piston, and Shipper; Tesler, & Sears, 2010).

  • 3. Similarly, it is far from clear whether the substantial numbers of white survey respondents who rate blacks as less intelligent than they rate whites or more violent than they rate whites (to be discussed in a paper by Yadon and Piston), attribute these perceived racial disparities to cultural rather than biological causes.

  • 4. The most careful of the new racism scholars also took pains to note that biological racism had diminished but had not disappeared. Kinder and Sanders (1996), for example, gave a section to the fifth chapter of their book the heading “The Decline – Not Demise – Of Biological Racism,” and they concluded their chapter by outlining conditions under which biological racism might resurge among the mass white public.

  • 5. Inside Higher Education, October 23, 2017: “Anger over stereotypes in textbook.”

  • 6. Another possibility is that Americans respond to elite messages about genetics and race in ideologically polarized ways (see Morin-Chassé, Suhay, & Jayaratne, 2017).

  • 7. New York Times, November 6, 2016: “Donald Trump’s extremist supporters feel like winners either way”; Boston’s NPR News Station, WBUR, November 18, 2016: “Listeners: Two Recent Interviews are ‘Normalizing Hate Speech’.”

  • 8. Splinter News, November 10, 2016~: “Racist Trump supporters have wasted no time spreading fear and violence across America.”

  • 9. Vox, December 14, 2016: A woman who called Michelle Obama an ape has her job back. This is part of a pattern.