Symbolic Racism: Problems of Motive Attribution in Political Analysis


Survey Research Center, 2538 Channing Way, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.


Research on symbolic racism attempts to identify the underlying psychological sources of public resistance to policies designed to promote racial equality. This research program has been built on the fundamental idea that, although old-fashioned, overt forms of racism have lost much of their appeal in American politics, new, more subtle and symbolic forms of racism continue to exert a pervasive influence on policy debates, making themselves felt, for example, in opposition to busing, to affirmative action, or even to black candidates running for office. This paper identifies serious empirical, logical, and methodological shortcomings in the case that researchers have advanced to support the symbolic racism thesis. Most serious are (a) the lack of clarity in theoretical definitions of symbolic racism, (b) the major inconsistencies in the operationalization of the construct, (c) the confounding of “independent” and “dependent” variables in the construction of symbolic racism scales, (d) the politically controversial nature of the item content of certain symbolic racism scales, (e) the frequent failures to distinguish the impact of traditional racial prejudice from that of symbolic racism on policy preferences, and (f) the tendency to pose a very restrictive conception of self-interest as the major explanatory alternative to symbolic racism interpretations of policy preferences.