Symbolic Racism Definition
Symbolic racism is a form of prejudice that Whites in particular hold against Blacks, although it is likely to be held in some measure by other American ethnic groups, and in principle some version of it may target groups other than Blacks. Symbolic racism is usually described as a coherent belief system that can be expressed in several beliefs: that Blacks no longer face much prejudice or discrimination, that Blacks’ failure to progress results from their unwillingness to work hard enough, that they make excessive demands, and that they have gotten more than they deserve.
The theory of symbolic racism centers on four essential propositions: (1) Symbolic racism has largely replaced old-fashioned racism, in that only a tiny minority of Whites still accept the latter, whereas they are about evenly divided about the beliefs contained in symbolic racism; (2) symbolic racism now influences Whites’ political attitudes much more strongly than does old-fashioned racism; (3) Whites’ opposition to racial policies and Black candidates is more influenced by symbolic racism than by realistic self-interest, defined as threats posed by Blacks to Whites’ own lives; and (4) the origins of symbolic racism lie in a blend of negative feelings about Blacks, acquired early in life, with traditional moral values. The label “symbolic” therefore highlights its roots in abstract moral values rather than in concrete self-interest or personal experience, and its targeting Blacks as a group rather than as specific Black individuals. The label “racism” reflects its origins partly in racial antagonism.
Symbolic Racism Background
Symbolic racism has been the most influential form of racial prejudice in American political life since the civil rights era of the 1960s. Racial conflicts have plagued the United States from its very beginnings, driven in particular by prejudice against Blacks. At the end of World War II, African Americans were second-class citizens, denied the pursuit of the American dream socially, economically, and politically. Since then, the Southern system of institutionalized Jim Crow segregation has been eliminated, as has most formal racial discrimination elsewhere. Old-fashioned racism, embodying beliefs in the biological inferiority of Blacks and support for formal discrimination and segregation, has greatly diminished. However, African Americans continue to experience substantial disadvantages in most domains of life. A variety of government race-targeted policies have addressed those disadvantages, such as busing for racial integration, affirmative action in university admissions, protection of equal opportunity in hiring and promotion, and special assistance in housing. These racial policies have been greeted with much White opposition. One explanation for that opposition is that some new form of racism, such as symbolic racism (also known as modern racism or racial resentment), has become influential in contemporary politics.
Symbolic Racism and Contemporary Politics
Research on symbolic racism finds it to be the most powerful influence over Whites’ attitudes toward racial issues and that it strongly influences Whites’ voting behavior in election campaigns that involve Black candidates or racial issues. Its explanatory power typically outweighs that of other important political attitudes, such as conservative ideology, preference for smaller government, or of more traditional racial attitudes such as old-fashioned racism, negative stereotypes, or pure anti-Black feelings. This has even affected the politically crucial change of the once solidly Democratic White vote in the South to conservative Republican dominance. The especially high levels of symbolic racism among White Southerners and its especially strong influence over their voting preferences seem to be leading factors in that change.
The symbolic racism claim is an important one that the politics of race are not merely politics as usual, but that they are significantly distorted by the underlying racial prejudice held by many racial conservatives, with ostensibly race-neutral rhetoric often disguising underlying racial animosity. Not surprisingly, then, the theory has stimulated some heated criticism.
Criticism of Symbolic Racism
Some conservatives say that racial prejudice has become only a minor political force, and that the theory of symbolic racism mistakenly treats ordinary political conservatism as reflecting racial prejudice. Its political effects might not be the result of racial prejudice, but of unprejudiced conservatives’ aversion to large, active government programs. However, symbolic racism invariably has far greater power than does ostensibly race-neutral conservatism in explaining White opposition to racial policies, such as affirmative action, when both are considered.
Critics on the political left say that symbolic racism theory ignores the vested interest that Whites have in maintaining their privileged position as the dominant group in a racially hierarchical society. In their view, symbolic racism is not the product of early acquired prejudices, but is a way of rationalizing Whites’ defense of their own and their group’s privileges. But considerable research shows that neither White opposition to greater racial equality nor symbolic racism stems to an important degree from Whites’ feelings of personal racial threat, their degree of identification with other Whites, or their perceptions that Blacks threaten Whites’ interests.
Symbolic Racism Relevance
These controversies are of more than mere academic relevance. They go to the substantive core of America’s longest-running and most difficult social problem. If the symbolic racism claim is right, much remedial work of a variety of kinds needs to be done on the White side of the racial divide. If it is wrong, and racial conservatives’ views about the optimal relative balance of governments and markets in modern societies are largely free of underlying racial prejudice, much obligation would be placed upon Blacks to adapt to a society in which they no longer are being treated much less fairly than other Americans.
- Sears, D. O., & Henry, P. J. (2005). Over thirty years later: A contemporary look at symbolic racism. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 37, pp. 95-150). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Sears, D. O., Sidanius, J., & Bobo, L. (Eds.). (2000). Racialized politics: The debate about racism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Valentino, N. A., & Sears, D. O. (2005). Old times there are not forgotten: Race and partisan realignment in the contemporary South. American Journal of Political .Science, 49, 672-688.