How Many Racists Are There in America?

A political polling expert talks through the sometimes thorny process of measuring racial resentment.

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Sep 14 2016, 4:00am

A pair of Ku Klux Klan members at a rally at the South Carolina State House protesting the removal of the Confederate flag in July 2015. Photo by Seth Herald/NurPhoto via Getty

No matter how many times America has a national conversation about race, the topic of actual racists rarely seems to come up. That is, racism is usually regarded as a major challenge facing America, but since no one will admit to being a racist and calling someone the R-word is regarded as the gravest possible insult, politicians generally shy away from identifying specific people or groups as fomenting prejudice.

In that context, it's pretty startling how much time Hillary Clinton has spent lately calling Donald Trump's supporters racist. At the end of August, she gave a speech dedicated to denouncing the "alt right"—a loosely associated set of white people who love Trump and embrace white-nationalist views that most Republicans would reject. Then, during a Friday speech, she went further, saying that half of her opponents supporters should be in a "basket of deplorables." She went on: "The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up."

Trump has responded by denouncing Clinton's "low opinion" of Americans, and Clinton did apologize for saying "half," though she stood behind most of the substance of her speech.

It's clear that though many, many Trump supporters are fine, hardworking Americans, there are also some who are outright racist shitbags. But how many fall into that latter camp? Is Clinton's basket size that far off? How do you count racists in America, anyway?

In an attempt to answer at least some of those questions, I called up Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State University. He explained the results of a recent study he conducted about the correlation of what people in the field call "racial resentment" and support for Donald Trump, and he told me that Clinton's original comments weren't far off.

VICE: In your research, were you able to conclude that half of Trump supporters are racists? Was Clinton right?
Jason McDaniel: I do think that based on the analysis I've done and based on some analysis more recently, there's no doubt that Trump supporters are more motivated by racially resentful views and negative racial views than Hillary Clinton supporters or [supporters of] previous Republican candidates. That was stuff I started analyzing in the spring during the primary. The people that supported Donald Trump, their views on negative racial stereotypes toward blacks, negative views of Muslims, and negative views of immigrants was just off the charts. That's a new thing this election cycle.

What percentage of people had those views?
It depends on how you look at it.

Well, how do you determine who's a racist based on polling?
It is hard. I think in the post–civil rights era, it became harder because it became clear that there's a very strong consensus in our country that racist views are not good and not allowed. So people are hesitant to express those. When we studied this, we looked back at the history, and you can see the decline. We asked people, "Do you think black people are more violent than white people?" or, "Do you think 'lazy,' 'violent,' or 'unintelligent' describes black people or white people or Latinos?" We ask those kinds of things. In these polls that I looked at, if you asked how well the word "violent" describes Muslims as a group, Trump supporters were much more likely to say it described them extremely well. If you compare the way they rate white people on those questions with the way they rate the other groups, that's how I get a sense of what I would call negative racial stereotypes––what we would call old-fashioned or explicit racism.

So people are returning to old-fashioned racism.
We've seen those kinds of measures rise since Obama's election in America. So they had kind of gone away or dissipated after the 1960s to the 2000s, but with the election of Obama, we started to see explicit, old-fashioned racism reemerge in American politics and become politically salient. And it was much more likely to be true of Republicans than Democrats. People who hold those racist views would also be more likely to think negative views about things like the economy when [these views] weren't true objectively.

The other thing we started doing as a discipline in the 80s and 90s as explicit racism was declining in American society, we started asking questions that focused on what we called "racial resentment." And so racial views were not about characteristics or individual traits of black people or immigrants or what have you, but rather about how much they deserve benefits, if they should work harder and not blame society for their troubles, if they're being discriminated against. It was this idea to connect it more to government policy. And there's some debate, with some people saying that's not racism, it's political ideology. But I think the results are pretty clear—it's connecting politics to the color of people's skin and judging them as not worthy because of whatever. It depends on the scholar, but people call that symbolic racism or racial resentment.

Well, there's a lot of racism in America and not a lot of avowed racists. It seems like you might have to trick someone into saying what they really mean in these polls.
I wouldn't say they're tricking them. We put four or five questions together to measure this thing called racial resentment. We're getting at another dimension of what we call racial attitudes.

This is 25 years worth of research that went into testing these [questions.] And now they're asked on every one of our major national-election surveys. So we can track this over time. This is why I can say Trump supporters were off the scale––we have data to compare it to going backward. And the parties are dividing on this issue. That didn't used to be the case. Now it's pretty clear that one of the major factors that split Democrats and Republicans is their views on racial resentment. If they're more racially sympathetic white people, they're gonna be Democrats, more likely. If they're more racially conservative or resentful white people, they're gonna be Republicans. And that's a key divide.

How did political scientists come up with a set of questions that have been determined to identify racists?
It's a science and an art. You use language that doesn't unintentionally measure or evoke something else. They are refined over time as part of the peer-review process. As a discipline, that's what we've agreed on. Sometimes there's a fifth one we ask, which is, "How much discrimination is there in the United States today against blacks? A great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or none at all?" But I trust these questions and that they get at something real.

A while back, did polls just ask, "Are you racist?"
There were a lot of different ways. But I think the main one was asking something like, "Would you describe black people as hardworking?" and you give them a four- or five-point continuum scale and ask them to rate that association. There's also an old thing people used to do called social distance. That's where you ask how someone might feel about a black person living in the same country as them, or same state, or same city, or same neighborhood. Then it's, "What if they moved in next door?" and, "What if your child married a black person?" In really old surveys in the 30s and 40s, you could get people to explicitly say all kinds of stuff. But you couldn't ask it that way after the 60s because people knew it wasn't acceptable as much anymore.

So do people feel compelled to lie in these polls, and how does that affect their accuracy?
This gets complicated because people will give some different answers based on the race of the person interviewing them, and if it's a computer survey, we get some differences, but lying? Yeah, but when you ask it enough and do it right over time, it's not about lying. Most people aren't thinking about this all the time.

Are Americans getting more or less racist?
There's this thing happening or this thought process that if you talk about race or racism, that's racism. So if you're calling someone racist, you're being the bigot, to use Donald Trump's phrase. And this is a very common belief. White Americans typically are uncomfortable talking about race, so if you are, you're the one who's judging people by the color of their skin. Now, that's incorrect and wrong, because you're judging them by their views. But that's the idea that Donald Trump and Republicans in the past are trying to play on, saying that moderates or Democrats are trying to call you racist. That's the political play they're going for, and I don't think it's working.

I think that one of the defining characteristics of the Obama era of politics is that racism and racial attitudes have reemerged. But then again, I wouldn't say that Americans are more racist than they were prior to the civil rights movement. But the voices of those who are racist are being amplified in ways, especially by campaigns like Donald Trump's, that we haven't seen in many decades. I don't think that more people hold explicitly racist views, but it's more likely that those messages are getting out and being amplified by politicians. I think we are seeing an emergence of something that's scary and that we should be worried about.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

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