Over Thirty Years Later: A Contemporary Look at Symbolic Racism* * Previous versions of this chapter were presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology

David O. Sears, P. J. Henry

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


We have taken up 12 controversies surrounding symbolic racism. We agree that the conceptualization of symbolic racism has not been terribly clear or consistent over time, though hopefully that has now evolved to a clear and consistent conceptualization. The measurement of symbolic racism has centered on a reasonably constant set of content themes, although the specific items used have varied considerably over time. It seems to form a substantively meaningful and statistically consistent belief system; it has two variants that differ slightly in the language they use but that are extremely highly correlated and have almost identical effects. The political effects of symbolic racism are quite consistent regardless of how it is measured. It has strong effects on racial policy preferences that are not weakened if items thought "close" in content to those dependent variables are removed from the measure of symbolic racism. Indeed, it seems not to matter at all which conventional measure of symbolic racism is used; they all have approximately the same effects. It has remarkably similar effects on preferences about quite diverse racial policies-even those that differ substantially in the overall level of White support they attract. Its effects on racial policy preferences are just as strong among the college educated as they are among the less educated. Its origins do appear to lie in a "blend" of racial animosity and conservative traditional values such as individualism, combined in either additive fashion or in the fusion we called "Black individualism." Symbolic racism seems to mediate the effects of that "blend" on racial policy preferences, as would be the case if symbolic racism were the contemporary political belief system that gives it political power. And Black individualism is distinctly racial: It has stronger effects on racial policy preferences than on gender policy preferences, whereas the reverse holds for an analogous gender individualism. Symbolic racism is quite different from old-fashioned racism. It is much more widely accepted, has far stronger political effects, and falls on different factors in factor analyses, though their common racial content generates significant correlations between them. Its political effects are quite distinct from and stronger than those of political conservatism, though correlated with it. Its effects do not seem to stem from any very self-conscious defense of White privilege, because a variety of measures of White group consciousness have little to do with either symbolic racism or opposition to policies targeted for Blacks. Symbolic racism is all about antagonism toward Blacks, not ingroup favoritism for Whites. In all these respects the theory seems to have been sustained quite well by available empirical evidence, contrary to the speculative alternative interpretations alluded to initially. The data we have presented have been collected in a wide variety of surveys. None of our basic findings seem to be specific to any one survey; rather, they replicate strongly over surveys. In our view these particular critiques ought to be set aside and these controversies regarded as settled unless and until contrary evidence emerges (see also Hutchings & Valentino, 2004).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology
Number of pages56
StatePublished - 2005

Publication series

NameAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology
ISSN (Print)0065-2601

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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