Symbolic Racism 1986-2000: How and Why Racial Prejudice is Changing

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Virginia Tech


Recent racial attitude research has focused on whites' increasing support for the principles of racial equality and lack of support for programs meant to bring about racial equality. As one explanation for this gap some researchers have hypothesized that a new form of symbolic racism with origins in early-learned feelings of individualism and antiblack affect is taking the place of traditional prejudice. According to symbolic racism theory, whites oppose programs such as affirmative action out of moral resentment toward blacks for not living up to traditional protestant values. However, longitudinal studies of racial attitudes continue to focus on whites increased support for the principles of equality. No study has focused on symbolic racism over time. Using data from the American National Election Studies I analyze symbolic racism among whites from the years 1986-2000 by decomposing the time trend into its attitudinal change and cohort replacement components. Results of the analyses support the view that symbolic racism is not decreasing, and has actually increased slightly since 1986. Results of the analysis do not support the view that symbolic racism has origins in early-learned feelings such as antiblack affect. In fact, the effect of antiblack affect on symbolic racism is decreasing over time as symbolic racism is increasing. Based on this finding, an alternative conceptualization of symbolic racism that places the origins of racial prejudice in competition between groups for status and not in feelings and emotions is offered.



Racial Resentment, Symbolic Racism, Racial Policy, Racism