Race to the bottom

Book cover: Race to the Bottom

Race to the bottom

How candidates parlay racial animosity into political gain

By Catherine Zandonella

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Michael Harris wants your vote. In a recent campaign speech, he said he is sick of people blaming the government for problems they created themselves, and he urged “people in the inner city” and Blacks to work harder.

Harris is a fictional character, but he illustrates a real phenomenon: politicians capitalizing on racial stereotypes to curry favor with white voters. You might surmise that Harris is white, but in fact, research by political scientist LaFleur Stephens-Dougan revealed that Black candidates also exploit racial prejudice in pursuit of political gain.

Both white and Black candidates engage in “racial distancing” — the practice of purposefully signaling to white voters that a candidate is not beholden to the interests of racial minorities, Stephens-Dougan found. Through racial distancing, candidates pledge to maintain the nation’s unspoken racial hierarchy, in which whites take the top leadership positions throughout politics and business.

“There is great political utility to Black politicians, and particularly Black Democrats, to signal that they’re not beholden to communities of color,” said Stephens-Dougan, an assistant professor of politics.

“This is especially true in the backdrop of a changing United States that is rapidly diversifying, and in which people are concerned about their economic well-being.”

Stephens-Dougan harnessed observations and experiments to explore how white and Black candidates use race when courting white voters. She detailed her findings in Race to the Bottom: How racial appeals work in American politics (2020, University of Chicago Press).

Book cover: Race to the Bottom
LaFleur Stephens-Dougan
LaFleur Stephens-Dougan. Photo by Denise Applewhite

“There is an element
that taps into people’s
insecurities, real or
imagined, in terms
of whether another
group is doing better, and politicians
know this.”
-LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, assistant professor of politics

It is perhaps not surprising that white conservatives play to voters’ negative racial attitudes. But Stephens-Dougan found that white liberals and Black candidates also utilize this strategy, and that Black candidates may benefit more than white liberals from campaign messages that enforce negative racial stereotypes, such as that Blacks are not hardworking.

In fact, Black candidates from both sides of the aisle employ such stereotypes, argued Stephens-Dougan. Democratic former President Barack Obama is widely thought to have run a race-neutral campaign. But Stephens-Dougan’s analysis showed that his national 2008 presidential campaign played on racial stereotypes.

For example, the campaign ad “Country I Love” emphasized that Obama believed in “working hard without making excuses,” a phrase that alludes to stereotypes about Black work ethic. In addition, the 60-second ad lacked any discernable African American faces. In campaign appearances in 2008, Obama exhorted Black men to “get up off the couch” and take responsibility for their lives.

By reinforcing negative stereotypes, Stephens-Dougan wrote, Black politicians miss the opportunity to call attention to structural factors such as lack of education and jobs.

Racial distancing is especially effective when a Black candidate is running in a region with a large white electorate. Blacks make up about 12.5% of the U.S. electorate, so appealing to white voters in presidential elections is essential. White voters may be receptive to racially charged language for a number of reasons. While some may hold views about white racial superiority, others may be concerned that policies favorable to Blacks could cause them to slip down the economic ladder.

To test the theory that Black candidates can use racial distancing to curry favor among white voters, Stephens-Dougan conducted several experiments using fictitious scenarios, including one in 2018 involving the fictional Harris. For the study, she worked with a survey firm that recruited white volunteers and divided them into groups.

Each group received an article about Harris’ campaign speech. The speech was identical except for the headline and one passage that invoked race explicitly, implicitly, or not at all. In the explicit version, Harris said, “I’m tired of Black people blaming the government for problems that they created. Black people need to learn the value of hard work. Work harder!”

In the implicit version, Harris’ quote was identical except that “Black people” was replaced by “people in the inner-city,” a surrogate term for people who are poor and Black. In the neutral version, Harris exhorted all people to learn the value of hard work. Stephens-Dougan noted that the study did not test the scenario where the candidate urges white people to work harder because that stereotype is largely absent in society.

To explore differences in how white voters perceive the three messages in relation to the race of the candidate, Stephens-Dougan created four versions of the candidate: Black Democrat, Black Republican, white Democrat and white Republican.

The researchers randomized the volunteers into groups and asked them to read one of the 12 possible permutations of the article (four versions of the candidate, each with three versions of the article about the speech).

The main question Stephens-Dougan wanted to answer was whether the Black candidate would garner more white votes with the message aimed at Black stereotypes versus the neutral message exhorting all people to work harder. Indeed, she found that white voters were more likely to vote for a Black candidate Harris when he exhorted Black people to work harder, versus exhorting inner-city or all people to work harder. This result was especially strong when the voters were Republicans. Black politicians were especially rewarded by Republican voters for explicitly exhorting other Blacks to work hard.

Campaign poster examples
To test the theory that by playing on racial stereotypes, Black candidates can curry white votes, researchers recruited white volunteers and provided them with three versions of a news article covering a campaign speech by a fictional candidate named Michael Harris, who was either white or Black. The three articles were identical except that the speech invoked race either explicitly, implicitly, or not at all. Stephens-Dougan found that white voters were more likely to vote for the Black candidate with the explicit racial message. The result was especially strong among conservative white voters.(For illustrative purposes only. These are not the actual treatments from the experiment.)

The white version of Harris lost white Democratic voters by goading Blacks to work harder. This finding agrees with research by other scholars indicating that blatant racist appeals fall flat among white voters. However, previous studies looked mainly at racist appeals from white candidates, not those who are Black.

In some cases, statements about race don’t have to be negative. Simply featuring Black supporters in campaign ads is enough to turn off white voters who hold racial stereotypes and are concerned about disrupting the racial hierarchy.

This was the finding of an earlier study where Stephens-Dougan surveyed white voters’ perceptions of campaign mailers that featured a candidate named Greg Davis. The research team varied the race of the candidate and his supporters, who were well-dressed professionals and students. In one mailer, the supporters were all white, in another they were all Black, and in a third they were a mix of white and Black.

For this study, the team surveyed the white voters to ascertain their level of racial resentment. Racial resentment is determined by asking the volunteers to agree or disagree with statements such as, “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.”

The study found that Black candidates having a campaign mailer with all white supporters was not enough to overcome the stereotype among racially resentful voters that the Black candidates would favor Blacks over whites. However, the white Republican candidate was not penalized for the association or inclusion of Black supporters.

Stephens-Dougan argues that white Republicans are not penalized for an association with Black people because the stereotype that white Republicans will maintain the racial hierarchy is very strong.

“There is an element that taps into people’s insecurities, real or imagined, in terms of whether another group is doing better, what does this mean for me, what does it mean for my kids, and for my position in the hierarchy,” Stephens-Dougan said. “And politicians know this.”

That politicians would invoke race to ensure that candidates are electable among white voters is troubling for our democracy, Stephens-Dougan concluded. Politicians should be broadening their appeal to all voters rather than chasing racially conservative white voters, she said.

“As Stephens-Dougan demonstrates, both parties employ these strategies and they do it because voters respond to it,” said Vincent Hutchings, the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professor of Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies and the Diversity and Social Transformation Professor at the University of Michigan, as well as Stephens-Dougan’s former Ph.D. adviser.

“If we are serious about wanting it to stop, we have to bring the same moral outrage to politicians of either party. Until then, politicians are going to keep doing this as long as it keeps working.”