Reaching Beyond Race

I just finished Reaching Beyond Race by Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines.  They argued – in 1997 –  that people concerned with racial equality should focus on enacting policies that increase opportunities for the disadvantaged generally, using arguments that, as the title suggests, reach beyond race.  This is a common enough viewpoint, but they make a number of interesting points about public opinion on racial justice, including the following:

  • Whites broadly and strongly reject affirmative action, and opposition is only weakly related to self-reported attitudes about Blacks.  (They use clever survey designs to try to avoid social desirability bias in responses.)
  • Merely mentioning affirmative action increases negative views of Blacks (among Whites) substantially.  The proportion saying Blacks are lazy increased from 20% to 31%, the proportion saying irresponsible increased from 26% to 43%, and the proportion saying arrogant increased from 29% to 36%. (They also point out that Whites say a lot of positive things about Blacks.)
  • Affirmative action splits the democratic coalition – those who have favorable views of Blacks support AA, but political liberals who are racially prejudiced oppose it just as strongly as conservatives.
  • Racial prejudice does not influence White liberal support for policies aimed at strengthening the safety net or taxing the rich.
  • A majority of Whites believe (falsely) that an absolute majority of the poor and of violent criminals are Black. (I will return to this in a future post.)
  • Support for job training for unemployed Blacks is higher when justified using race neutral justifications based on the importance of work than justifications based on historical discrimination, and support is highest for universal programs.

The book is obviously a bit dated and some of its conclusions may not hold due to reshuffling of people between parties based on racial attitudes, cue-taking by voters and the use of more explicit racial messages by Republicans, continued liberalization of attitudes, and no doubt many other factors.  And some of their findings seem consistent with somewhat different stories about political psychology than the stories they tell.  But I want to highlight two lessons that still seem relevant today.

First, they worry that liberals are emphasizing issues and arguments that split their coalition.  I think this is true, and it doesn’t just pertain to race.  Currently liberals are resisting public pressure to end pandemic restrictions, a position that unifies Republicans and splits Democrats – potentially pushing cross-pressured Democrats away.

Second, consider the explanation they offer for why this happened (in the case of race, my bold):

Part of the answer, we want to suggest, has to do with misreading sentiment not in the public taken as a whole – even politicians of below-average astuteness have long recognized the unpopularity of preferential treatment and racial quotas in the country as a whole – but that portion of it on their own side of the political aisle.  When it comes to public issues, most people spend most of their time speaking to those who mostly agree with them.  The inclination of liberal Democrats to avoid public criticism of affirmative action has led liberal Democratic activists to overestimate support for, and to underestimate anger at, affirmative action on their own side of the political aisle. . . .

Their argument here – from 1997 – bears a strong resemblance to the claim by some Democratic political analysts like Teixeira and Shor and commentators like Yglesias that Democratic elites are too “woke” and out of touch with working class voters who might support Democrats on less racially and culturally divisive issues – because they spend too much time talking to each other.  Of course, this doesn’t prove that this critique is correct, but it does offer useful historical perspective.