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Responding to Elite Rhetoric: Private Versus Public Expressions of Racism

Fri, August 31, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hynes, 209


Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump violated longstanding social norms with his explicitly racialized rhetoric. But rather than drawing condemnation, his most inflammatory statements often coincided with media reports of increased public vitriol toward racial and ethnic minorities. How did Trump’s rhetoric influence private attitudes versus public expressions of racial hostility? Did they exacerbate racial prejudice? Or merely “sanction” the expression prejudices that already existed? This paper addresses these questions using a 4x4 survey experiment. White respondents are randomly assigned to read a news article in which Donald Trump either does or does not make an explicitly racist appeal. They are then told that they will be answering a series of questions about their personal opinions. Half of the sample is told that their responses will be reviewed by fellow survey participant, who will rate them on traits such as likability and fairness. They are also told that they will receive this evaluation 1-2 days after they have completed the survey. The other half are told that their responses will be kept completely private and deleted 1-2 days after they have completed the survey. All respondents then complete a battery of questions that tap into their attitudes toward African Americans and Latino immigrants. Responses are evaluated to determine how exposure to an explicitly racist appeal influences expressions of racial hostility under public versus private conditions. If racist appeals actually generate greater racial hostility, that increase should be present under both private and public conditions. If racist appeals alter social norms, public exposure should serve as a weaker depressant against racial hostility among respondents who receive the appeal than those who don’t. The results of this survey will add to a growing body of research which suggests that white Americans view politics through an increasingly racialized lens and have become more accepting of explicitly racist appeals. By examining the underlying processes and causes of this trend, this paper offers two major contributions. First, it adjudicates between two possible explanations: growing racial hostility versus weakening social norms against public displays of racism. Second, it investigates elite rhetoric as a possible catalyst for the changing landscape of racial politics.


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