Posted on June 22, 2016

Americans Now Think It’s Okay to Say What They Really Think About Race

Max Ehrenfreund, Washington Post, June 17, 2016


Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who conducted the recent surveys with his colleagues, finds Mendelberg’s arguments about what is often called “dog-whistle politics” persuasive. From his perspective, his new surveys show an important shift in how Americans talk about race.

“Now these issues can be discussed openly,” Valentino said. “There’s nothing unacceptable about that anymore–to talk about race in an explicit way.”

This is exemplified in the broad support among Republicans for Donald Trump, who has made more explicit appeals to racial anxiety a crucial part of his campaign.


Because racial biases remain widespread, the fact that Americans are comfortable with talking about race also means that inflammatory rhetoric has become more common in public discourse.

Trump and other Republican politicians have themselves argued that in talking about race, too much is treated as out of bounds. In polls, Republicans consistently give Trump high marks for “telling it like it is,” suggesting that some appreciate how freely he gives voice to their racial concerns.


Valentino’s research, conducted with students Fabian Neuner and Matthew Vandenbroek, suggests Trump is benefiting from a trend that began several years ago.

The presumptive Republican nominee was merely “one of the first to identify those changes and capitalize on them,” Valentino said. “The rules were changed before he got on the scene.”

The researchers conducted the surveys online between 2010 and 2012, using multiple sampling techniques to ensure they had a representative group of Americans. They are in the process of publishing their results.

In each survey, the researchers gauged participants’ racial attitudes by asking them whether they agreed with a series of statements such as, “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.”

Respondents also read what was supposedly a news story about the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health-care reform, randomly receiving one of two different versions of the article.

In one version, the controversy was described as explicitly racial. Obama’s legislation was described as being more popular with “blacks” and less popular with “whites,” for example. An opponent at a protest was quoted as using a racial slur, while a fictional tea-party lawmaker who voted against the law was quoted as comparing it to “reparations for slavery.”

In the other version, coded language replaced these explicit phrases. Instead of “blacks” and “whites,” the article described tensions “between city and suburb.” Instead of a racial slur, the opponent complained about “bums” and “freeloaders.” For comparison, a third group of participants randomly received a neutral article about the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2014.

Regardless of how conservative they were on race, participants were more likely to tell surveyors that the first version of the article was racially insensitive. That fact, however, did not seem to bother those who had more conservative responses to the questions about racial attitudes. When asked about the Affordable Care Act, they were no more likely than racially conservative participants who had read the coded article to say they supported the policy.


“Ten, 20 years ago, people felt like there was something immoral, unjust, unacceptable about expressly mentioning race, and that’s shifting,” Haney-López said.