Article written in 1995 for J. Psychonomic Society but not accepted for publication
CONSERVATISM AND RACISM: A COMMENT ON EISENMAN & SIRGO
University of N.S.W., Australia
Eisenman & Sirgo (1993) purport to show a relationship between conservatism and racism but ignore or misunderstand much of the literature on the subject. Their research is shown to be flawed and other recent research is referred to which shows that attitudes generally are poor predictors of racist behavior.
In paper on political conservatism in The Journal of the Psychonomic Society, Eisenman & Sirgo (1993) cite some of my work (Ray, 1984) and claim that their results refute a theory that I have put forward. Since this claim seems to be based on a serious misreading of the literature, some correction to it seems required.
Attitudes or Behavior?
The theory that I put forward is referred to as "surprising" by Eisenman & Sirgo but was in fact none other than the hoary generalization usually attributed to LaPiere (1934) to the effect that racially prejudiced attitudes and racially discriminatory behavior do not generally go together. Eisenman & Sirgo (1993) remark that I quoted only the LaPiere paper and Ray (1971) in support of "my" theory and so give the impression that the generalization is a poorly supported one. Their literature search evidently did not turn up the review article on the question by Crosby, Bromley & Saxe (1980) or any of the many other articles that have drawn similar conclusions (e.g. Rule, Haley & McCormack, 1971; Melamed, 1970).
If their account of the support in the literature for "my" theory is deficient, however, their next statement is nothing less than a glaring non-sequitur. They say that "my" theory is inconsistent with findings showing that conservative beliefs and racially discriminatory beliefs tend to be correlated. Why? The "theory" (really an empirical
generalization) concerns racist attitudes and racist behavior. Where does it mention conservative attitudes? It is true that conservative attitudes and racist attitudes have long been known to correlate (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950; Weigel & Howes, 1985) but "my" theory concerns attitude/behavior correlations, not attitude/attitude correlations. The evidence Eisenman & Sirgo adduce as contradicting "my" theory is in fact simply irrelevant to it.
The Problematical Eisenman & Sirgo Findings
The research that Eisenman & Sirgo themselves carried out reported principally the responses of U.S. voters to a single survey question concerning the degree of help that the government should give to blacks. The fact that racial prejudice is generally (e.g. Adorno, et al, 1950; Beswick & Hills, 1969) deemed to be complex enough to require the use of a multi-item scale for its proper measurement seems
to have escaped these authors.
That what they found was hardly clear should not therefore be surprising. They found that more Democrats than Republicans thought that the government should help blacks more and it is this aspect of their findings that they concentrate on. Another aspect of their findings that should be noted, however, is that although the most extreme anti-black response was endorsed by 43 Republican voters it was also endorsed by 49 Democrat voters! See Table 2 of Eisenman & Sirgo (1993). So is it Republicans or Democrats who are the racists? George Wallace Democrats are obviously still alive, well and easy to find. If the supposed relationship between Republican vote and racism described by Eisenman & Sirgo had been reported in correlational terms, it would clearly have been quite weak.
Voting for Republicans is hardly racially discriminatory behavior but it IS conservative behavior of a sort so it could potentially be of some interest that Eisenman & Sirgo (1993) have shown it to be only weakly predictive of racial attitudes. As Eisenman & Sirgo failed to use a tested multi-item scale of racial attitudes, however, the reliability and validity of their attitude measure must be held as dubious and their results generally must therefore be held as being of dubious import.
The work by Eisenman & Sirgo was then naive. So is there better work on the questions they raise? This is obviously not the place to attempt a systematic review of the literature so let us look at just two recent studies in this area that did take some care about the measuring instruments used.
Let us first look at the work of Duckitt (1993): Duckitt was dissatisfied with the existing scales used to measure racist attitudes and devised instead his own "Subtle Racism" scale. To validate his scale he reported its correlation with a number of racist behaviors. Most of his correlations, however, were around .20 -- indicating only 4% common variance between racist behavior and this most carefully constructed measure of racist attitudes. This is of course very much the sort of rough orthogonality that one would expect from the work of LaPiere (1934) and his many successors.
Duckitt does, however, report a .73 correlation between his Subtle Racism scale and a short form of the Altemeyer (1981) RWA scale. The RWA scale has been shown (Ray, 1987) to be mainly a measure of conservatism so the relationship between racist and conservative attitudes once again emerges. For further comment on Duckitt's work see Ray (1994)
The lack of relationship between racially discriminatory attitudes and behavior, however, means that this finding tells us NOTHING about what is presumably most important to psychologists -- behavior. It tells us nothing about how conservatives might be expected to BEHAVE towards members of other races.
It should also be noted that Duckitt's work follows the common pattern of using an available group of students as a "sample". The relationship between racist attitudes and conservatism seems to be much more problematical and complex where general population samples are used (Lipset, 1959; Gaertner, 1973; Ray, 1973; Hanson, 1975; Mercer & Cairns, 1981; Sniderman, Brody & Kuklinski, 1984; Weil, 1985; Ray & Furnham, 1984; Ray & Lovejoy, 1986).
Another recent finding of some interest in the present connection was by Gough & Bradley (1993). These authors were unusual in that they used a properly constructed scale to measure rated racist behavior. They correlated it with a form of the California "F" scale (usually described as measuring authoritarianism but perhaps more informatively referred to as measuring a type of old-fashioned
conservatism. See Ray, 1988 & 1990). They found a correlation between the attitude and behavior measures of essentially zero (.08) and were reduced to trawling through a vast matrix of correlations with individual items in order to find some shred of (statistically dubious) evidence that would support the California theory that authoritarianism is related to racist behavior (Adorno et al., 1950).
Racist behavior is, then, notoriously hard to predict and even sophisticated attitude research is very poor at it.
Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N.
(1950). The authoritarian personality New York: Harper.
Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism Winnipeg:
University of Manitoba Press.
Beswick, D.C. & Hills, M.D. (1969) An Australian ethnocentrism scale.
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Crosby, F., Bromley, S. & Saxe, L. (1980) Recent unobtrusive studies
of Black and White discrimination and prejudice: A literature
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Duckitt, J. (1993) Further validation of a subtle racism scale in
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Gaertner, S.L. (1973) Helping behavior and racial discrimination among
Liberals and Conservatives. J. Pers. Social Psychology 25, 335-
Gough, H. & Bradley, P. (1993) Personal attributes of people described by others as intolerant. In P.M. Sniderman, P.E. Tetlock & E.G.
Carmines (Eds.) Prejudice, politics and the American dilemma (pp. 60-85) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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Amer. J. Polit. Science 28, 75-94.
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Weil, F.D. (1985) The variable effects of education on liberal attitudes: A comparative-historical analysis of Anti-Semitism using public opinion survey data. Amer. Sociological Review
Williams, R.J. & Wright, C.R. (1955) Opinion organization in a heterogeneous adult population. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51, 559-564.
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