is the era of “colorblind racism” over?

Racial politics for the past couple decades have been characterized by “colorblind racism”, defined by Bonilla-Silva as an ideology that rationalizes the subordinated positions of people of color as the outcome of market forces, cultures of poverty, or natural tendencies. As Bonilla-Silva notes, this “new racism” is not the only form of racism that has maintained America’s racial hierarchy since the 1960s, but it has arguably been dominant. Colorblind racism involves ignoring or downplaying structural racism, employing dog whistles in place of explicit racist imagery, and alleging reverse racism whenever a program or policy makes race explicit in order to combat the effects of structural racism.

The 2016 election, the Trump presidency, and a few sets of new survey results make me question if we’re seeing the beginning of another transformation in American racial discourse. This transformation involves the return of explicit racism in right political discourse, the rise of a more explicit White racial identity politics, the rising acceptance of explicit racist discourse in place of dog whistles, and the increasing (albeit still partial) rejection of colorblindness by Democrats/the left (driven perhaps by negative partisanship and the GOP’s embrace of explicit racism). So, what’s the evidence?

First up, a new Pew Report looks at trends in attitudes of various sorts by party affiliation from 1994 to present. 1994 is solidly in the moment of dog whistle politics; this is the Clinton era, welfare reform, and still booming mass incarceration. In 1994, the GOP and Democrats were split on many racial issues, but the split wasn’t that large. By 2017, some of the splits grow tremendously, and in ways that suggest Democrats may be more open to arguments that foreground persistent racism (especially anti-Black racism) as a structural problem. For example, here’s a chart with answers to a question about discrimination as the main reason why Blacks can’t get ahead:

As Pew summarizes:

When the racial discrimination question was first asked in 1994, the partisan difference was 13 points. By 2009, it was only somewhat larger (19 points). But today, the gap in opinions between Republicans and Democrats about racial discrimination and black advancement has increased to 50 points.

So there has been a huge shift in the attitudes of Democrats in just the last 5 years or so. Is this a Black Lives Matter effect? I’m not sure, but I do think it’s a very important trend for us to follow. Partisan gaps have grown on a lot of different topics, but the magnitudes here are much larger, and coming from very recent movements among Democrats (though there wasn’t that much farther for the GOP to go). Changing demographics (more non-White Democrats) matters too, but can’t explain this big a shift this quickly.

Questions asking about affirmative action show similar movement (though affirmative action is tricky to poll). Here’s Pew’s version:

The GSS asks its question about affirmative action quite differently, and finds overwhelming opposition – but also has seen a small uptick in strong support (about 5 percentage points) in the past 3 years.

These changes in top-level political attitudes are at least consistent with the GOP moving towards more explicit racism and the Democrats coming to embrace at least some form of structural racism argument. Beyond that, there’s also some evidence that racist dog whistles no longer work the way they used to. In a forthcoming paper titled “The Changing Norms of Racial Political Rhetoric and the End of Racial Priming,” political scientists Valentino et al find changes in how racial priming works in political discourse (replication files, yay for reproducibility!). Here’s their abstract, emphasis added:

We explore the conjecture that norms of racial rhetoric in U.S. campaigns have shifted over the last several years. Prior work suggests that the way politicians talk about race affects the power of racial attitudes in political judgments. Racial priming theory suggests that explicit racial rhetoric – messages overtly hostile toward minorities – would be rejected. When race is cued subtly, however, the power of racial attitudes on issues is significantly enhanced. Replication attempts have recently failed. We identify two historically related shifts that lead us to expect the effective distinction between explicit and implicit racial rhetoric has declined in recent years. Four nationally representative survey experiments strongly support our predictions: Regardless of whether political messages are racially explicit or implicit, the power of racial attitudes is large and stable. Finally, many citizens recognize racially hostile content in political communications, but are no longer angered or disturbed by it.

Read the study for details, but to summarize: many respondents (those with high levels of “symbolic racism” as measured by standard attitude questions) were not angered or disturbed by even explicit racist appeals. Dog whistles are no longer needed; you can call Mexicans rapists and win the GOP nomination.

On top of all of that, White racial identity is increasingly playing a political role. White racial identity was a strong predictor of supporting Trump in the GOP primary.  It’s not (just) about explicit White supremacy, but about White pride and perceptions of Whites facing increased discrimination. Arguing that Whites should receive the same benefits purportedly accorded to racial minority groups (like a “White History Month“)  is, I think, subtly different from arguing that we should get rid of these explicit recognitions of race in favor of colorblindness, and thus I think fits with this broader pattern.

Beyond the survey evidence, we also have the lived experience of the last two years. From Black Lives Matters to the Trump campaign to White Supremacists at Charlottesville and elsewhere, racial politics have looked anything but colorblind. Put it all together, and I think there’s at least a plausible case that we’re entering a very different of era of racism than the one that dominated in the 1980s-2000s.

Of course, there’s still been plenty of political discourse and policymaking that would fall comfortably into the old categories. I am not arguing that colorblind racism is entirely gone, just that it no longer characterizes our era well. For example, Hillary Clinton invoked implicit bias in her discussion of police shootings; implicit bias is a perfect idea for the colorblind age as it finds a way to not blame individuals for even individual-level racist decisionmaking.

But Clinton lost to Trump, in part because Trump did not lose any of the support that political scientists predicted a generic Republican would receive. Perhaps the most shocking and telling finding of the 2016 election is that Trump did almost exactly as well as you’d expect a generic Republican to do, in spite or because of his explicit racism. Partisanship is a helluva drug. And partisanship is now overtly, explicitly racialized. The GOP is the party of White identity and explicit racism. The Democrats are (becoming, haltingly) the party of racial diversity and explicit anti-racism. Negative partisanship may be a driving force here: if the GOP hates Black Lives Matter and Latino immigrants, Democrats must like them. And so we see the massive movements in Democrats’ attitudes towards discrimination.

What do you all think? Is colorblindness over? How would you characterize the changes in racial attitudes and politics of the past five years or so? This whole post is quite speculative, and my engagement with the literature partial, so I’d very much love your comments and thoughts!

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

1 thought on “is the era of “colorblind racism” over?”

  1. I’d want to see the breakouts just for Whites before forming a definite opinion, but it is my impression from my White students at my liberal campus that the prevalence of “I don’t see race” has declined markedly among students in my classes in the past decade. Let’s see, checking my pre-class survey data. The class is just over 60% non-Hispanic White (below the campus average, due to my cross-list with Asian American Studies which attracts a lot of Asians to the class), and 20% of all students agreed or strongly agreed that “talking about race is racist.” If we make the possibly unwarranted assumption that all of the students who gave this answer were White, that would say that roughly 1/3 of the White students would hold the strong color blind ideology. Note that in this same class nearly 80% of the students agree or strongly agree that police unfairly target Blacks. And only about 10% say that minorities are preferred over Whites in hiring if both are equally qualified and only 1 person said Whites are discriminated against. I’ve got a lot of old data that could probably be used for time trends. Unfortunately I collected it without IRB approval because it was for the internal purposes of education, not research, so it is not clear that I can do anything with the data. I’m pretty sure my IRB would stomp on my attempts to publish any analysis. The only reason this comment is legal is that it isn’t “research.”


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