Open main menu

Symbolic racism

Symbolic racism (also known as modern-symbolic racism, modern racism,[1] symbolic prejudice, and racial resentment) is a coherent belief system that reflects an underlying unidimensional prejudice towards any ethnicity. These beliefs include the stereotype that blacks are morally inferior to white people, whites are racist and that black people violate traditional White American values such as hard work and independence. This is also more of a general term than it is specifically related to prejudice towards black people. It can be more generally characterized as an open dislike and derogation of individuals related to one's self.[clarification needed] These beliefs may cause the subject to discriminate against black people and to justify this discrimination.[2] Some people do not view symbolic racism as prejudice since it is not linked directly to race but indirectly through social and political issues.[3]

David O. Sears and P.J. Henry characterize symbolic racism as the expression or endorsement of four specific themes or beliefs:[4]

  1. Blacks no longer face much prejudice or discrimination.
  2. The failure of blacks to progress results from their unwillingness to work hard enough.
  3. Blacks are demanding too much too fast.
  4. Blacks have gotten more than they deserve.

Symbolic racism is a form of modern racism, as it is more subtle and indirect than more overt forms of racism,[5] such as those characterized in Jim Crow laws. As symbolic racism develops through socialization and its processes occur without conscious awareness,[6] an individual with symbolic racist beliefs may genuinely oppose racism and believe they are not racist.[7] Symbolic racism is perhaps the most prevalent racial attitude today.[8]



In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, old-fashioned (or "Jim Crow") racism dissolved along with segregation in the United States. Some people believe that new forms of racism began to replace old-fashioned racism.[9] Symbolic racism is a term that was coined by David Sears and John McConahay in 1973[10] to explain why most white Americans supported principles of equality for black Americans, but less than half were willing to support programs designed to implement these principles. The original theory described three definitive aspects of symbolic racism:[11][12]

  1. A new form of racism had replaced old-fashioned Jim Crow racism, as it was no longer popular and could no longer be influential in politics as only a small minority still accepted it.
  2. Opposition to black politicians and racially targeted policies is more influenced by symbolic racism than by any perceived or true threat to whites' own personal lives.
  3. The origins of this form of racism lay in early-socialized negative feelings about blacks associated with traditional conservative values.

The concept of symbolic racism has evolved over time but most writings currently define symbolic racism as containing four themes:[1]

  1. Racial discrimination is no longer a serious obstacle to blacks' prospects for a good life.
  2. Blacks' continuing disadvantages are largely due to their unwillingness to work hard enough.
  3. Blacks' continuing demands are unwarranted.
  4. Blacks' increased advantages are also unwarranted.


The term symbolic racism derives from the fact that the opinions expressed characterize blacks as an abstract group, "as in the anonymous 'they' in 'if they would only…'" rather than specific individuals. People hold prejudices because of the cultural stereotypes attributed to the group rather than because of any personal individual experience with the group in question.[6] Researchers have given the concept of symbolic racism many different names, usually to emphasize one aspect over another. These names include modern racism, racial resentment, and laissez-faire racism. However, they all represent virtually the same concept and are measured in much the same way.[6]

While similar in nature, symbolic racism is distinguished from aversive racism based on the relationships between the defining characteristics. Aversive racism involves "separate, disassociated positive and negative components, which are in conflict, and thus, may sometimes be experienced as ambivalence."[13] Symbolic racism, on the other hand, "reflects the unique assimilation of individualistic values and negative racial affect."[13] The components of aversive racism remain disassociated within the individual; whereas, the components of symbolic racism blend to produce racial attitudes.[13] While both types of racism predict similar behavior, they are the consequences of different fundamental processes.


Whitley and Kite cite six underlying factors that contribute to symbolic racism. They are to this day believed to have been some of the biggest influences on modern racism.[6]

  1. Implicitly anti-black affect and negative stereotypes.
  2. Racialized belief in traditional values.
  3. Belief in equality of opportunity.
  4. Low belief in equality of outcome.
  5. Group self-interest.
  6. Low knowledge of black people.

According to Whitley and Kite, those who hold symbolic racist beliefs tend to hold implicitly negative attitudes, most likely gained in childhood, towards blacks that may or may not be conscious.[6] These attitudes may not be outright hatred, but rather fear, disgust, anger, contempt, etc. In addition, those who hold symbolic racist beliefs may also believe in traditional American values such as hard work, individuality, and self-restraint.[6] However, these beliefs have become racialized. Many perceive that black individuals do not hold or act in accordance with these values.[6] Instead, black individuals rely on public assistance, seek government favors, and act impulsively.[6] As Whitley and Kite note, "The fact that White people also accept public assistance, seek government favors, and act impulsively is not relevant to people with symbolic prejudice; it is their perception (usually in stereotypic terms) of Black people's behavior that they focus on."[6] Furthermore, those with symbolic prejudice tend to believe in the equality of opportunity, which includes access to resources such as education, housing, and employment.[6] However, they tend not to believe in the equality of outcome. This explains how people can support the principle of racial equality but not support initiatives to achieve it, such as affirmative action. Government intervention when individuals do not have the same talent, effort or historical background would violate traditional values of equality of opportunity.[6] Thus, "people can simultaneously endorse equality of opportunity and reject government intervention to bring about equality of outcome."[6] Group self-interest reflects the idea that people try to do what is best for their group.[6] This idea manifests itself in the opinion that whites are deprived as a group of opportunities due to policies intended to benefit blacks. Finally, Whitley and Kite state most whites do not have extensive personal experience with blacks so the negative stereotypes they hold about blacks do not have the opportunity to be dispelled.[6]



Much of the initial research conducted by researchers on symbolic racism utilized McConahay's (1986) modern racism scale (MRS). However, citing a number of measurement problems, Sears and Henry published the Symbolic Racism 2000 (SR2K) Scale in 2002 in the journal Political Psychology.[14] It consists of a series of statements relating to race and politics to which the participant must state their agreement on a scale of "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."[14] Statements included on the American National Election Studies surveys and most commonly used in political science research include:[14]

  • Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  • Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
  • Over the past few years, Blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
  • It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.

This updated scale addresses the issues with previous forms of measurement including internal reliability, construct validity, predictive validity, and discriminant validity, and generalizability.[14]


Bobocel et al. (1998)[2] found that prejudice can be rationalized as a concern for justice. Opposition to preferential affirmative action programs (which assign more weight to certain demographics and give preference to target groups and their members) was uniquely predicted by an individual's belief in merit principles. That is, regardless of prejudice level, individuals tend to oppose preferential treatment programs because they violate traditional norms of meritocracy. However, the higher an individual's level of prejudice, the more likely he was to construe an undefined affirmative action program (e. g. not necessarily preferential) as violating the merit principle and, in turn, oppose the undefined affirmative action program.[2] These high-prejudice individuals were able to rationalize their prejudice as a concern for justice, although no traditional justice norms had been explicitly violated.[2] In this way, symbolic racism functions through rationalization as a concern for traditional norms without conscious awareness.[2]

Public opinion researchers polled white Americans in the early 1970s on their backing for racial equality and their support for government intervention that would enforce that equality. The results revealed high levels of support from white Americans, ranging from 75 to nearly 100 percent, regarding the principles for school integration, equal opportunity employment, and open housing. Support from the same white Americans was significantly lower for implementation of abstract principles at approximately 50%.[15]

College students who had completed a modern-symbolic prejudice measure early in the semester evaluated the résumés of 10 job applicants. The applicants consisted of three qualified blacks, two qualified whites, and five unqualified whites. The students were split into two groups: one containing students rated high in modern-symbolic prejudice and once containing students rated low. Each student received a memo from the president of the company. Half of the students received memos in which the president of the company asked the student to abstain from hiring a worker of a minority group because the person hired would be dealing mainly with white employees. The memo for the second group did not contain this message. The results were stark between the groups: the group that did not receive any instructions from the president of the company recommended a black candidate 61% of the time, regardless of the individual's modern-symbolic prejudice rating. In the group that had received justification from the president to abstain from minority hiring, 37% of the students low in modern-symbolic prejudice recommended a black candidate whereas only 18% of the students high in modern-symbolic prejudice recommended a black candidate. The results show that symbolic prejudice is expressed most strongly when non-explicitly racist justifications are given for discriminatory action.[16]

Other applicationsEdit

While symbolic racism was originally conceptualized as a prejudice specifically against blacks in the United States due to their violation of cherished values, scholars have expanded the concept to apply it to other groups and other locales. In the United States, research has been conducted on symbolic racism as it relates to Latinos and Asians, as well as modern sexism, anti-fat bias, and heterosexism.[4] For example, Mingying Fu conducted an experiment in which symbolic racism was shown to influence attitudes toward outgroup members and racial policies.[17] In addition, Fu found that symbolic racism was the strongest predictor of white as well as Asian and Latino opposition to affirmative action after controlling for biological racism and ideology.[17]

Fraser and Islam (2007) applied the concept of symbolic racism to the Aborigines and European Australians in Australia.[18] In this context, the Australian version of the symbolic racism construct is defined as "the use of affective responses and beliefs that are well accepted within a dominant majority racial group as justifying its advantaged position".[18] They measured the relationship between racial prejudice and support for Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party using two postal surveys based on a random sample of names from electoral registers.[18] Support for Hansen and voting for the One Nation Party were strongly related to a measure of symbolic racism.[18] The study also found a relationship between symbolic racism and a measure of relational orientation, or concern over the position of one's own racial group relative to other racial groups.[18] Fraser and Islam state that this finding suggests that beliefs influenced by symbolic racism may be motivated by social identity processes, "where white European Australians regard their culture as the real, mainstream Australian culture, abs resent special concessions to groups such as Aborigines and Asian migrants, whom they exclude from their narrow self-identity as Australians."[18]

Examples of symbolic racism also exist in Europe, as Public Support for the European Union: Cost/Benefit Analysis or Perceived Cultural Threat?[19] argues that people are hostile towards the European integration due to the their perceptions of threats posed by other cultures. In this study, the independent variables to be gauged were the realistic and symbolic perceptions. The response choices for the questions given to his participants were dichotomous for each of these variables. The choices were :

  • People from [these] minority groups abuse the system of social benefits.
  • The religious practices of people from [these] minority groups threaten our way of life.

The findings of the questions for his participants demonstrated that perceived cultural threats appeared to have a strong sway on the attitudes toward the EU. It was concluded that attitudes toward the European Union were largely based on a general hostility towards other cultures.[19]


Symbolic racism has implications for legal policies. Green et al. (2006) found a positive correlation between symbolic racism and punishing crime policies such as the death penalty and three strikes laws, and a negative relationship with policies that are intended to assist criminals such as inmate education.[20]

Individual prejudices and opposition to programs to eliminate inequality of outcomes most likely contribute to institutional discrimination, which in turn leads to continued racial inequality.[6]

Symbolic racism has been found to have a major effect on attitudes regarding legal policies and Black political candidates. It has been shown to be a predictor of attitudes towards busing, affirmative action, and welfare.[14]

Within American society, institutionalized practices have been influenced by Structural Racism resulting in "the subordination and devaluation of minority groups".[14] In history, the solution for the deficit in the achievement gap between White and African American students believed that African Americans would academically perform better if these students were to adopt a Eurocentric cultural values system. This assumption of the inferiority of the African American culture closely relates to the work ethic themes from the concept of symbolic racism.[21]

It is argued that the media framing of Obama has helped shaped many audiences' attitudes in ways that support symbolic racist beliefs, such as the idea that America is in a post racial contemporary society where discrimination is no longer a concern or that racial/minority groups are being "too pushy" for political rights. When comparing positively framed news stories to negatively framed stories of Obama, it was seen in a study of 168 participants that symbolic racist beliefs increased.[22]

In more recent history, many African American musical artists who specialize in rap have been blamed for promoting youth violence, gangs and gang related crime, drug use, and violence against women in popular news sources such as BBC News and Fox News. In the study Blame It on Hip Hop: Anti-Rap Attitudes as a Proxy for Prejudice, Reyna et al. found in three different samples a negative attitude towards rap is associated with negative stereotypes that believe African Americans are to be blamed for their economic plights. The type of rap that was looked at was categorized as gangster rap, which is notorious for its violent undertones and explicit language. Along with this, in their second study they found that Anti-rap attitudes are also associated with discrimination towards African Americans such as tendency to support policies that negatively impact predominantly black communities or reluctance to send one's child to a mixed race school. Conversely, other predominantly black genres of music such as jazz or gospel were not shown to elicit the same strong reactions, so it is believed that the imagery associated with rap music is a primary reason for common distaste in the music.[23]

Criticisms and controversiesEdit

A major criticism is that new experimental studies show that respondents do not answer these questions differently when groups other than African Americans are mentioned in the survey questions.[24] For instance, when other groups such as "Albanians," "Lithuanians," "Jordanians," "Taiwanese," etc. were substituted into the same symbolic racism questions, the pattern of responses is not significantly different from responses when African Americans are the group included in the question. This undermines a primary claim made by Sears et al. that their measure of symbolic racism is a blend of "anti-Black affect" and "conservatism." Enos and Carney (2018) write: "Across multiple groups and multiple samples on different survey platforms, we find a strong an consistent pattern: the results obtained using groups other than Blacks are substantially indistinguishable from those measured when Blacks are the target group. Decomposing this measure further, we find that political conservatives express only minor differences in resentment across target groups. Far greater differences in resentment toward Blacks and other groups can be found among racially sympathetic liberals. In short, we find that modern racism questions appear to measure attitudes toward any group, rather than African Americans alone."[24]

One criticism of symbolic racism is that it has been conceptualized and measured inconsistently over time.[4] Sometimes it has been conceptualized as consisting of a single construct and other times as consisting of multiple subdimensions. Most scholars now consistently describe symbolic racism as being composed of the four major components listed by Tarman and Sears.[1] Tarman and Sears posit that consistently defining it as based on those four themes will eliminate the inconsistency problems. The updated symbolic racism scale, Symbolic Racism 2000 (SR2K), is believed to have addressed many issues in measurement inconsistency.[1]

Another criticism is that symbolic racism is not true racism but a manifestation of conservative political ideology. For instance, if one believes that one group should receive "special favors" they would answer the question in a manner coded as more racially resentful. Tarman and Sears evaluated this claim and concluded that symbolic racism is an independent belief system encompassing discrete attitudes from those of conservatives.[1]

Some scholars have suggested that the focus has moved prematurely from old-fashioned racism to modern racism. In a qualitative study, Mellor (2003) conducted interviews with Aboriginal Australians in which he discovered that many experience racism and that much of it is old-fashioned rather than modern.[25] He argues that social scientists may have embraced forms of modern racism too quickly, which could have negative impacts on minorities by helping to maintain discriminatory social institutions.[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e Tarman, Christopher & Sears, David O. (2005). "The Conceptualization and Measurement of Symbolic Racism" (PDF). The Journal of Politics. 67 (3): 731–761. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00337.x.
  2. ^ a b c d e Bobocel, D. Ramona; Son Hing, Leanne S.; Davey, Liane M.; Stanley, David J.; Zanna, Mark P. (1998). "Justice-based opposition to social policies: Is it genuine?". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75 (3): 653–69. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.653.
  3. ^ McConahay, John B.; Hardee, Betty B.; Batts, Valerie (December 1981). "Has Racism Declined in America? It Depends on Who is Asking and What is Asked". Journal of Conflict Resolution. 25 (4): 563–79. doi:10.1177/002200278102500401. JSTOR 173910.
  4. ^ a b c Henry, P. J.; Sears, D. O. (2008). Moore, J. H., ed. Symbolic and Modern Racism. Encyclopedia of race and racism. Volume 3 (1st ed.). Macmillan. pp. 111–112. ISBN 978-0-02-866023-3.
  5. ^ James, Erika Hayes; Brief, Arthur P.; Dietz, Joerg; Cohen, Robin R. (2001). "Prejudice matters: Understanding the reactions of Whites to affirmative action programs targeted to benefit Blacks". Journal of Applied Psychology. 86 (6): 1120–8. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.86.6.1120. PMID 11768055.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Whitley, Bernard E.; Kite, Mary E. (2010). The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth. ISBN 978-0-495-81128-2.[page needed]
  7. ^ Harrison, David A.; Kravitz, David A.; Mayer, David M.; Leslie, Lisa M.; Lev-Arey, Dalit (2006). "Understanding attitudes toward affirmative action programs in employment: Summary and meta-analysis of 35 years of research". Journal of Applied Psychology. 91 (5): 1013–36. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.5.1013. PMID 16953765.
  8. ^ Sears, David O.; Henry, P. J. (2002). "Race and Politics: The Theory of Symbolic Racism" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 November 2012.
  9. ^ Virtanen, Simo V.; Huddy, Leonie (1998). "Old-Fashioned Racism and New Forms of Racial Prejudice". The Journal of Politics. 60 (2): 311–332. doi:10.2307/2647911. JSTOR 2647911.
  10. ^ Sears, David O.; McConahay, John B., eds. (1973). The Politics of Violence: The New Urban Blacks and the Watts Riot. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-11927-3.[page needed]
  11. ^ Sears, David O.; Kinder, Donald R. (1971). Racial tension and voting in Los Angeles. OCLC 516049.[page needed]
  12. ^ Hirsch, Werner Zvi, ed. (1971). Los Angeles: Viability and Prospects for Metropolitan Leadership. New York: Praeger. OCLC 123089697.[page needed]
  13. ^ a b c Dovidio, John F.; Gaertner, Samuel L. (2008). Moore, J. H., ed. Aversive Racism. Encyclopedia of race and racism. Volume 3 (1st ed.). Macmillan. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-02-866023-3.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Sears, David O. (1988). "Symbolic racism". In Katz, Phyllis A.; Taylor, Dalmas A. Eliminating racism: Profiles in controversy. Perspectives in social psychology. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 53–84. ISBN 978-0-306-42631-5.
  15. ^ Schuman, Howard; Steeh, Charlotte; Bobo, Lawrence D.; et al., eds. (1997). Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-74568-1.[page needed]
  16. ^ Brief, Arthur P.; Dietz, Joerg; Cohen, Robin Reizenstein; Pugh, S.Douglas; Vaslow, Joel B. (2000). "Just Doing Business: Modern Racism and Obedience to Authority as Explanations for Employment Discrimination". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 81 (1): 72–97. CiteSeerX doi:10.1006/obhd.1999.2867. PMID 10631069.
  17. ^ a b Fu, Mingying (April 2005). Symbolic Racism of Color: How Asians and Latinos View Affirmative Action. Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Chicago IL.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Fraser, Christopher O.; Islam, Mir Rabiul (2000). "Social Identification and Political Preferences for One Nation: The Role of Symbolic Racism". Australian Journal of Psychology. 52 (3): 131–7. doi:10.1080/00049530008255380.
  19. ^ a b Lauren M. McLaren, "Public Support for the European Union: Cost/Benefit Analysis or Perceived Cultural Threat?," The Journal of Politics 64, no. 2 (May, 2002): 551-566.
  20. ^ Green, Eva G. T.; Staerklé, Christian; Sears, David O. (2006). "Symbolic Racism and Whites' Attitudes Towards Punitive and Preventive Crime Policies". Law and Human Behavior. 30 (4): 435–54. doi:10.1007/s10979-006-9020-5. PMID 16770704.
  21. ^ Margaret Beale Spencer, Elizabeth Noll, Jill Stoltzfus & Vinay Harpalani (2001) Identity and School Adjustment: Revisiting the "Acting White" Assumption, Educational Psychologist, 36:1, 21-30, doi: 10.1207/S15326985EP3601_3
  22. ^ Srividya Ramasubramanian & Amanda R. Martinez (2017) News Framing of Obama, Racialized Scrutiny, and Symbolic Racism, Howard Journal of Communications, 28:1, 36-54, DOI: 10.1080/10646175.2016.1235519
  23. ^ Reyna, C., Brandt, M., & Tendayi Viki, G. (2009). Blame It on Hip-Hop: Anti-Rap Attitudes as a Proxy for Prejudice. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(3), 361–380.         
  24. ^ a b Riley K. Carney, Ryan D. Enos, "Conservatism and Fairness in Contemporary Politics: Unpacking the Psychological Underpinnings of Modern Racism,"
  25. ^ a b Mellor, David (2003). "Contemporary Racism in Australia: The Experiences of Aborigines". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 29 (4): 474–86. doi:10.1177/0146167202250914. PMID 15273002.