Citizens’ Racism and Sexism ≠ Opposition to Minority and Female Politicians
The intuitive explanations for why racists opposed Obama and sexists disliked Clinton usually focus on demographics: Barack Obama is Black and Hillary Clinton is a woman, an idea I called the “demographic hypothesis.” But is it really the case?
In a recent project, I found that the picture is a bit different. For example, people who scored high on racism still supported Ben Carson, a Black politician, but they opposed Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, two White politicians. Additionally, people who scored high on sexism still supported Carly Fiorina, but opposed Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, two male politicians. These results don’t fit with the demographic hypothesis.
So what is going on?
The Ideology Hypothesis
Prejudice can be understood as beliefs that racial and gender hierarchies are legitimate and justified. These ideas dovetail with many assumptions of conservative policies in the United States. If so, racists and sexists may support conservatives because they are perceived to share similar values and beliefs. Although racism and sexism are concepts about race and gender, they are beliefs on how the society should be arranged based on race and gender, not about who should do the arrangement. So in this perspective, the politician’s demographic background probably does not play much role.
Based on these ideas, I proposed that how citizens’ prejudice relates to their support of politicians is mostly determined by the politicians’ political ideology, which I called the “ideology hypothesis.” The findings about racism’s benefit for Ben Carson and sexism’s benefit for Carly Fiorina do not make sense for the demographic hypothesis, but they are very consistent with the ideology hypothesis, given that they are both ideologically conservative.
To pit the demographic hypothesis against the ideology hypothesis, I did studies with over 40,000 participants. For example, I measured participants’ racism level by asking them how much they agree with statements like “I would rather work alongside people of my same racial/ethnic origin.” They would then report how much they like a hypothetical politician and how likely they will vote for him. Importantly, the politician they saw either had a Black or White headshot as a profile picture, and independent of race, was paired with either a liberal or conservative statement. Like the results about Carson and Sanders, the hypothetical politician’s race did not matter for how citizens’ prejudice related to support for him, and the only thing that mattered was his ideology.
In a similar study, I found the same thing for sexism. In a different ongoing project, I also found the same thing for “implicit racism”: people who have strong mental associations between Black people and negative concepts also support conservatives and oppose liberals, regardless of their race. In the competition between the two hypotheses, the ideology hypothesis wins; the demographic hypothesis loses.
Revisiting the case about Obama and Clinton, although prejudiced citizens did not like them, it is unlikely because of their race and gender. Most likely, it is because they are liberal politicians whose political agenda is egalitarian.
Why Do These Findings Matter?
These studies help us understand how prejudice works by clarifying exactly how citizens’ prejudice may be translated into political preferences. Additionally, it helps us understand exactly whom citizens’ prejudice benefits or undermines.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, citizens’ prejudice did not seem to undermine candidates who are minorities and women very much. Instead, citizens’ prejudice will most likely undermine candidates who advocate for egalitarianism, and therefore undermine the growing number of citizens who are minorities and women who are entering the society and the workforce. As the diversity of our society continues to grow, and more minorities and women are entering the political arena, I think the topic of these findings is particularly timely.
This project is one of many where I compare the roles of values versus identity. In one other project, I found that White Americans who value their Whiteness or support White identity politics similarly support conservative politicians and oppose liberal politicians, regardless of whether the politicians are Black or White. In another, I found that even our identification of someone’s race and skin tone are shaped by that person’s ideology, as we perceive racially ambiguous persons as more likely Black and having darker skin if they are liberal than conservative. Therefore, in closing, when we are evaluating someone, my studies suggest that we often attend to other’s values and beliefs more than their identities. In the battle between values versus identity, values often (though perhaps not always) win.
For Further Reading
Bai, H. (2021). When racism and sexism benefit black and female politicians: Politicians’ ideology moderates prejudice’s effect more than politicians’ demographic background. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000314.
Brandt, M. J., Reyna, C., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., & Wetherell, G. (2014). The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 27-34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413510932
Hui Bai is a Stanford Impact Labs postdoctoral fellow and a member of the Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford University.