Any understanding of American history is fundamentally incomplete without careful attention towards race and racism. Since the first slaves were forced into servitude on the American continent by Europeans, the Black experience has been cast in the shadow of white hegemony. Sociologist and race scholar Joe Feagin developed the concept of the White Racial Frame to explain the operation of white hegemony in American culture. Feagin argues that the White Racial Frame is built on the repeated and perpetual denial of the present unequal status quo of white dominance in American society. In essence, there is a tendency within the white cultural zeitgeist to downplay, de-emphasize, or otherwise discredit claims about racial disparities to maintain the status quo of racial dominance.
I pair Feagin’s concept of the White Racial Frame with racialized attitudes about “deservingness” for government aid. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Skocpol and Williamson (2012) situate racially motivated understandings of deservingness and hard work within the Tea Party populist uprising. Skocpol and Williamson (2012) write, “In Tea Party eyes, undeserving people are not simply defined by a tenuous attachment to the labor market or receipt of unearned government handouts. For Tea Partiers, deservingness is a cultural category, closely tied to certain racially and ethnically tinged assumptions about American society in the early twenty-first century. Tea Party resistance to giving more to categories of people deemed undeserving is more than just an argument about taxes and spending” (74). In short, they argue that the belief government benefits go to the wrong people are linked to racially tinged assumptions about American society.
I use these frameworks to test how a powerful example of racial violence affects Americans’ perception of racial equality. Specifically, I examine the degree to which people who believe that government benefits go to the “wrong people” are likely to believe that the U.S. is close to securing racial equality. I then further explore whether those who believe that government benefits go to the “wrong people” change their beliefs when presented with an example of racialized violence. I expect that reminding Americans about the murder of George Floyd will drive perceptions of racial in a more pessimistic direction, regardless of beliefs about deservingness. In other words, the effect of “Saying Their Name” is powerful enough to affect the attitudes of Americans regardless of their underlying views on race.
Research Questions and Data
I analyze two questions from the August 2020 Grinnell College National Poll. To test Feagin’s theory that systematically racist viewpoints de-emphasize racism, I use question 19. Question 19 on the poll is a population-based survey experiment in which half of the respondents (the control group) were asked, “How close do you think the country is to achieving full equality in everyday life for African Americans—Very close, pretty close, pretty far, very far, or do you think we are already there?” The other half of respondents (the treatment group) were asked the same question, but were first reminded of the lynching of a Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police in May of 2020. Comparing perceptions of racial equality in this way will allow us to see if humanizing racialized violence by invoking a specific example leads respondents to lower their evaluation of the current level of racial equality.
For the deservingness measure, I used question 17c, which asked respondents to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Too many of the benefits provided by the government go to the wrong people.” The deservingness measure will test Skocpol and Williamson’s theory that Americans’ ideas of deservingness are infused with racial animus.
Next, I turn to analyzing the findings of the survey experiment. First, I find that people can be moved to acknowledge racism regardless of their underlying beliefs about race, although respondents in the ‘wrong people’ group were less affected by the treatment than those in the “right people” group. As a reminder, the perception of racial of equality is measured on a 5-point scale that ranges from 1, the view that we are “Very Far” from racial equality, to 5, which indicates the U.S. is “Already There.” Within the group that believes government benefits go to the “right people,” the mean perception of equality is .5 points lower in the treatment group compared to the control group. Within the group that expressed the belief that benefits go to the “wrong people,” the mean perception of equality in the treatment group is .25 points lower on the equality scale than the control group. Both findings were statistically significant at the 0.05 level.
My second finding is that in both experimental and control groups, people who believe benefits go to the “wrong people” are more likely to believe that the U.S. is close to achieving equality for Black people than people who say benefits go to the “right people.” This finding is in line with Feagin’s theory and my expectation that people who indicate a racially motivated idea about government benefits (that they go to the wrong people) are more likely to deemphasize systemic racism compared to people who do not maintain racist beliefs about deservingness. Put simply, this finding lends evidence to suggest that people with racist beliefs tend to also believe that there is little systemic racism in the United States.
Together, these findings suggest that people who hold racist beliefs about deservingness can potentially be moved to acknowledge racism via a carefully constructed rhetorical strategy which features examples of racialized violence. In other words, presenting respondents with specific examples of racialized violence chips away at what Feagin observed to be an overall tendency to de-emphasize systemic racism. This finding is especially topical because of the social justice strategy being adopted by “Say Their Names” activists. Their rhetoric revolves around making issues of racialized violence explicit by invoking the names of the many people who have been killed in instances of police brutality. This study finds that this approach is a worthwhile strategy for forcing an acknowledgment of systemic racism.
The call to action, then, is to engage in dialogue to make a dent in the firm ideological hold that racism has on our American society. Rhetorically, the dialogue should include invocations of specific incidences of racialized violence – exactly the message of the “Say Their Name” movement. By making racism explicit, this study finds that people’s perceptions of equality can be moved to acknowledge systemic racism. This is meaningful because, in order to fix a problem, people must agree that there is a problem to begin with.
Reynaldo Wilson ‘22 is a political science and sociology major at Grinnell College.
Note: this post was edited for publication by Associate Professor Peter Hanson
Feagin, J. R. (2013). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Skocpol, T., & Williamson, V. (2012). The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199832637.001.0001