Hidden Racial Anxiety in an Age of Waning Racism

Even as they quickly condemn the likes of Donald Sterling, surveys reveal whites have serious misgivings about a more diverse nation.
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Molly Riley/Reuters

Typically, April showers bring May flowers. This year, however, April also delivered a torrent of racially charged issues to the national stage. In Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on university-admissions programs that use race as a criterion in college admissions. Clippers owner Donald Sterling ignited a firestorm when a recording surfaced in which he asked his mixed-race girlfriend not to post photos of herself with black people on Instagram or bring black people to NBA games. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy garnered support from Senator Rand Paul and other prominent conservatives in the wake of his standoff with the federal government over cattle grazing rights. But most supporters hurried to distance themselves from Bundy when he offered these stunning remarks at a news conference:

I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro …. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? 

The nearly unanimous denunciations of both Sterling and Bundy makes clear that as nation, we have moved beyond the point where blatantly racist statements are publicly acceptable, easily explained away, and carry no real consequences.

When did this happen? While cultural shifts are difficult to pin down, there is good evidence that the country reached a tipping point in attitudes about racism sometime in the mid-1990s. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and an anchor of southern culture, finally came around to offering a sober apology for its former defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racism at its 1995 annual meeting in Atlanta.

Google’s Ngram viewer allows us to assess the relative usage frequency of the words “prejudice” and “racism” in American English books over time, revealing a confirming pattern. The frequency of the more generic word “prejudice” remains relatively stable from 1900 through 1970, when it begins to decline. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the more normative word “racism” did not appear until 1902, and its usage only begins to pick up in the mid-1960s just as major federal civil-rights legislation is passing. The term “racism” rises through the early 1970s, declines during the Reagan-era 1980s, but then rises sharply again in the 1990s. Most notably, the term “racism,” which relies both on the acknowledgment of racial bias and on a shared normative negative judgment, outpaces the term “prejudice” for the first time in the early 1990s and significantly exceeds it by the mid-1990s.

Well before the election of the first black president in 2008, the condemnation of direct and open expressions of racism had become a social norm. While the fading acceptability of openly racist attitudes is to be celebrated, it clearly does not mean that race no longer matters or that racial tensions and anxieties have disappeared. In her scathing dissent in the Michigan case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor chastised her colleagues for downplaying the continuing significance of race:

Race matters…. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.

For civil-rights activists, the challenge is that the open racism of the past may transmute into what Ta-Nehisi Coates describes as an “elegant racism” that is less visible and that “disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism,” For researchers, journalists, and policymakers, the new challenge is that this positive social norm may make the public less willing to speak openly and candidly about race, a problem social scientists call “social-desirability bias.”

Recent research reveals that social-desirability bias remains active in the measurement of white anxieties about the changing racial composition of the country. In early 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute team set up a controlled survey experiment designed to assess anxieties concerning the changing racial makeup of the country. First, we asked respondents to tell telephone interviewers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “The idea of an America where most people are not white bothers me.” Among whites, 13 percent admitted to an interviewer that the idea of a majority-minority America bothers them. There was only modest variation among white subgroups, ranging from 10 percent of younger whites young than 50 years of age at the low end to 18 percent of white Republicans at the high end who said an America that is not mostly white concerns them.

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Robert P. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focusing on religion, values, and public life.

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