Politics

Assessing Survey Data on Tea Party “Racism”

| by The Volokh Conspiracy

By Ilya Somin

The NAACP and others have accused Tea Party supporters of racism. There is no doubt that some Tea Party members are racist. But the same can be said for some members of any large group, including the Party’s opponents. The important questions are whether Tea Party supporters are on average more racist than the general population, and whether that racism is an important driver of their political agenda. The available survey data doesn’t justify either charge.

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Tea Party supporters cite Gallup data showing that Tea Party sympathizers are demographically similar to the general population. However, critics correctly point out that the crucial point at issue in the debate is the Tea Partiers’ attitudes, not their demographics.

I. The University of Washington WISER Survey.

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The study most commonly cited by those claiming that Tea Party members are unusually likely to be racist is this recent survey of voters in seven states conducted by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality (WISER). It has gotten lots of coverage (e.g. — here, here, and here). The study authors don’t claim that white Tea Partiers have unusually high levels of racism as such, but they do argue that this group has more “racial resentment” than other whites. That charge, however, is poorly supported by the study’s actual data.

Some of that data simply shows that Tea Partiers hold more conservative views on racial policy issues than do opponents and moderates. For example, they are more likely to be hostile to affirmative action, and more likely to believe that historic racism and slavery are not the major causes of black socioeconomic disadvantages. The Tea Partiers may be wrong about some of this, but it doesn’t prove either racism or resentment towards blacks.

The strongest evidence of possible racism in the WISER study is the finding that only 35% of strong white Tea Party supporters describe blacks as “hardworking” (compared to 55% of strong opponents), only 45% see them as “intelligent” (compared to 59% of opponents and only 41% view them as “trustworthy” (compared to 57% of Tea Party opponents). The numbers for assessments of Latinos are similar, though slightly more favorable.

This data has limitations. It doesn’t prove that Tea Partiers are unusually likely to view blacks and Latinos negatively, believe that they should be discriminated against, or even that blacks have fewer positive traits than whites. Still, it’s at least plausible to believe that a person who refuses to describe a group as “trustworthy” or “intelligent” is prejudiced against them. 

That conjecture breaks down, however, once we look at the survey’s data on white Tea Party supporters attitudes towards whites. Only 49% of strong Tea Party supporters describe whites as “hard working” (59% of opponents describe whites that way), 59% characterize whites as “intelligent” (compared to 69% of opponents) and 49% describe whites as “trustworthy” (compared to 72% of opponents). 

If refusing to describe a group as “hard working,” “intelligent,” or “trustworthy” is an indication of prejudice or “resentment” against it, then about half of white Tea Party supporters seem to be strongly anti-white. Moreover, white Tea Party supporters would seem to be more anti-white than are white Tea Party opponents, who are far more likely to attribute the three positive characterizations to whites. 

Interestingly, many more strong Tea Party supporters describe Asians as hardworking (64%) and intelligent (66%) than whites. Strong white Tea Party supporters are also slightly more likely to describe Latinos as “hardworking” (54%) than whites (49%). 

It’s not impossible for people to be prejudiced against their own racial or ethnic group. Still, it seems highly unlikely that half of white Tea Party supporters (and about 40% of all whites) harbor strong prejudice or resentment towards their fellow whites. 

If not racism or racial resentment, what explains the WISER findings on these three questions? It’s hard to know for sure. However, I conjecture that many respondents interpret these questions differently from what the authors intended. When people describe someone as “intelligent,” “trustworthy,” or “hardworking,” they could mean that the person in question meets some minimal threshold level of this quality. But they could also mean that he or she is more intelligent or hardworking than the general population. I suspect that the authors interpreted these questions the former way, while many survey respondents took the latter view. For example, most of the 51% of white Tea Party supporters who refused to describe whites as “hardworking” probably didn’t mean to suggest that whites are generally lazy. Rather, they just don’t think that whites are not especially hardworking relative to other groups or relative to some other baseline. 

Other explanations for the data are also possible. What is not plausible, however, is the claim that the data are strong evidence of racial prejudice or resentment. 

In a recent Salon article, Christopher Parker, the lead author of the WISER study, briefly mentions some of these points, but fails to seriously consider the ways in which they undercut his thesis.

II. Racism and the Tea Party Agenda.

None of the above definitively proves that Tea Party supporters are not more likely to be racist than other members of the population. Further research might well show that they are. Even if racists do turn out to be overrepresented among Tea Party members, it does not follow that the majority of Tea Partiers are racists or that racial concerns are a major motivation for the group. Overrepresentation should not be confused with domination. Survey data overwhelmingly show that concerns about the size of government and other economic issues are the main focus of Tea Party members.