The 20th century Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is among the most successful and durable mass protest movements in American political history. Throughout the 20th century, DRM activists fought for equal political and economic rights– the desegregation of classrooms and public accommodations, the dismantling of coercive residential institutions, and an accessible built environment. Disabled activists and their allies occupied warehouses and university campuses, chained themselves to city buses, and took sledgehammers to inaccessible street curbs in an effort to make their voices heard. These remarkable episodes of political cohesion culminated in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a bill heralded by senator Tom Harkin, its chief congressional champion, as “the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”
Despite the prominence of disability in American political history, political scientists have only a thin understanding of how disability shapes political behavior. For the most part, existing research focuses on election accessibility and emphasizes the role of disability in curbing political participation. Several studies find that despite being no less interested in politics, people with disabilities are substantially less likely to turn out to vote than their non-disabled peers.
However, researchers have largely overlooked the potential impact of disability on political psychology. In particular, we don’t know whether disabled Americans see their disability as a politically meaningful feature of their social identities, or whether disability might serve as a basis for political cohesion or collective action. While the history of disability rights activism suggests disability may be politically mobilizing for a small minority of activists, less is known about whether or to what extent disability may also shape political identity in the mass public.
In a recent working paper, I find that disability is indeed an important dimension of political identity for many disabled Americans.
While disabled Americans do not appear mobilized along party lines, a sense of belonging to the disability community is associated with ideological liberalism and support for a range of social and redistributive policies.
Measuring disability as a social identity
I used an online survey of 700 Americans with disabilities to investigate two questions: Who embraces disability as a social identity? And how does identifying as a person with disability shape political attitudes? To collect the sample for this study fielded by Forthright Panels, I screened participants using the same measure of functional disability used by the U.S. Census and the CDC. I asked respondents a range of questions about their everyday experience of disability. I asked them how old they were when they first acquired their disability, how visible or noticeable their disability is by others, and how much functional limitation they experience in everyday life. Then, I asked respondents a series of questions about the degree to which their disability shapes their socialidentity: their sense of who they are as individuals and their place in the social world.
I compiled these items into a new measure of disability as a social identity– what I call the “Disability ID” scale. Those who score higher on the Disability ID scale consider disability to be an important feature of their personal identity, and place a high value on belonging to the disability community. A sizable minority of Americans with disabilities, about 35%, fall “high” on this scale.
Who embraces disability as a social identity?
I looked at the various characteristics that are associated with higher scores on the Disability ID scale. This analysis yielded two main findings. First, Disability ID is closely tied to impairment characteristics. Respondents with more severe, visible, and long-standing impairments were all more likely to report strong Disability ID. Second, Disability ID is stronger among those who participate in social and political institutions for people with disabilities. Specifically, Disability ID was stronger among those who reported receiving disability accommodations at school or at work, and among those who reported receiving financial assistance from the government on account of their disability.
How does Disability ID shape political attitudes?
Next, I wanted to understand how Disability ID shapes political outcomes. I first looked at the relationship between Disability ID and two key outcomes of interest to political scientists: ideology (liberal or conservative), and partisanship (Democrat or Republican). The results of this analysis were intriguing. On the one hand, those higher in Disability ID tend to be more politically liberal. On the other hand, Disability ID has no discernible impact on political partisanship. In other words, those who identify strongly with their disability tend to support ideas often associated with liberalism, like government support for social services, but aren’t more likely to identify as Democrats.
I also wanted to understand the potential impacts of Disability ID on policy preferences. Given the particular forms of social and economic disadvantage that accompany disability, I predicted that Disability ID would be associated with support for government policies aimed at improving material well-being for people with disabilities. To test this prediction, I asked participants a series of questions about their level of support for a variety of social and redistributive policies.
A clear pattern of results emerged. Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for a range of redistributive policies, especially those aimed at increasing financial security, public safety, and access to healthcare. In fact, in several instances the magnitude of the effect of Disability ID on policy attitudes is similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology. On the other hand, Disability ID has relatively little impact on attitudes toward policies theoretically more peripheral to disabled Americans, such as public schools or border security.
To test the validity of these results, I conducted a similar analysis using data from the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a prominent national political survey fielded by YouGov and researchers from Harvard University. Unlike the Forthright Panels study, the CES survey was collected in two waves, where the same set of participants were interviewed before and after the 2022 midterm elections. I included questions about Disability ID on the pre-election survey fielded in the fall, and questions about policy attitudes on the post-election survey fielded in January 2023. This survey design allowed me to conduct a stronger test of the relationship between Disability ID and policy attitudes. By asking participants about their policy preferences in the post-election survey, I am able to observe the relationship between Disability ID and political attitudes in a context where participants have not already been primed to think about their disability.
Results from the CES mirror those found in the Forthright study. Again, Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for redistributive policies, most notably those aimed at increasing financial security and access to healthcare. Furthermore, as in the Forthright Study, the magnitude of these effects is often similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology.
Why does this matter?
These results should encourage researchers to think differently about the role of disability in shaping political behavior. More than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, disability remains an important dimension of socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage. People with disabilities are roughly twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be unemployed and living in poverty, and are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime. Addressing these inequalities is likely to require political engagement and collective action. While existing work has emphasized the role of disability in curbing political participation, these results suggest that for many disabled Americans, a shared social identity as members of the disability community may be an important source of political cohesion and empowerment.
Joshua Thorp is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on political psychology in the United States and other developed democracies, with a particular focus on the politics of disability. Thorp’s dissertation examines disability as a dimension of political identity in the United States. He is an Institute for Social Research Next Generation scholar at the Center for Political Studies, and was the recipient of the 2022 Converse-Miller fellowship in American political behavior.
The Forthright survey was generously funded by the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and the Rapoport Family Foundation. The CES data was collected as part of the University of Michigan team module of the Cooperative Election Study at CPS, led by Donald Kinder.
Tevah Platt and Julia Lippman contributed to the development of this post.
Citizens in a democracy must have access to reliable information about what is happening in government policy in order to form meaningful preferences and hold politicians accountable. But do media consumers get the information they need to have informed policy preferences?
Past research suggests that public opinion on policy issues is thermostatic; that is, the public adjust their preferences for policy spending downward when spending increases and upward when spending decreases. In their new book, Information and Democracy: Public Policy in the News, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien argue that the public respond in this way because they are getting information about policy spending from the news.
For anyone paying attention to academic or public debates about news quality, it may not seem like this could be the case. Consider that the news media are regularly accused of having a partisan bias, failing to cover important issues, or relying on sensationalism to draw in viewers. Moreover, researchers and other observers also have concerns about the ability of the public to process the information they do receive; many people are not interested in following the news, and those that do may interpret information through a lens of pre-existing beliefs.
Nevertheless, the public does seem to be picking up on cues about policy. Soroka and Wlezien set out to measure the accuracy of media coverage of policy and identify the domains where the media tend to provide more or less faithful coverage of policy. In the book, they investigate the frequency and reliability of media coverage in five spending domains: defense, welfare, health, education, and the environment. Examining decades of government spending, media coverage, and public opinion in the US, Information and Democracy assesses the accuracy of media coverage, and assesses its direct impact on citizens’ preferences for policy.
To measure media accuracy, the authors use a two-step process. First, they create a “media policy signal” which is based on using a dictionary to code sentences about spending in each of the five policy domains across different news outlets. The dictionary codes each sentence as positive/upward changes in spending, negative/downward changes in spending, or no change in spending, scored +1, -1, or 0, respectively. The “media policy signal” is a sum of these codes by year, so that years where there are more upward changes in spending, the signal is positive, and years in which there are more downward changes, the signal is negative. The second step involves modeling the “media policy signal” against actual changes in the budget for these policy domains over time. Actual changes in the budget are drawn from the Historical Tables released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
A website based on the book is available at http://mediaaccuracy.net, where users can examine both the volume and accuracy of media coverage of policy by news outlet across the five topic domains. These volume and accuracy measures are based on the method described above and cover the computer-automated content analyses of millions of newspaper articles and television transcripts. Data displayed on the website compare the “signal” in media coverage to actual budgetary policy change. When media coverage matches policy change, media accuracy is high. When media coverage does not match policy change, media accuracy is low. Through a series of infographics, readers can examine the accuracy of 17 major US newspapers and 6 television networks over the past 20-30 years.
The results show a more nuanced picture of the relationship between media coverage and actual spending on policy than critics might expect. In some domains, news coverage indeed does not reflect changes in spending especially well. However, there are other domains, such as defense, welfare, and health where the relationship between news coverage and actual spending is strong. http://mediaaccuracy.net shows how this extends to individual news outlets. These results suggest that, while not always accurate, the media can convey accurate and useful information about government spending, and can play a role in the political accountability necessary in a modern democracy. The degree to which this is true does vary across outlets, however, sometimes in substantial ways.
Newspaper coverage of welfare
The chart above shows volume and accuracy scores for newspaper coverage of welfare, with media outlets in alphabetical order.
The theme of the roundtable presented on April 8, 2021, was “Can Democracy Survive?” Ken Kollman introduced the event, noting that the survival of democracy was a question that Miller and Converse worried about. Their ambition was to study survey respondents and political parties and candidates much like other scientists studied cells and atoms and planets, but they cared about the fate of democracy. Their legacy of scientific inquiry into politics and society continues at ISR and CPS. A recording of the event is available below.
Ken Kollman: Moderation and Extremism in American Political Parties
Political parties are changing and adopting new issue positions, says Kollman, and the mass public pays attention to these movements. Both partisanship and voting decisions respond to the people’s evaluations of these partisan positions relative to their own interests.
Kollman makes the case that both major parties in the United States are perceived to have moved away from the center since 2008. These patterns include a continuation of the shift of the working class towards the right and the Republicans the shift of more educated voters to the left and the Democrats. These shifts have consequences for politics and for the survival of democratic processes.
Most people in the US hold their partisanship for life, but notable portions of the electorate change over the course of their lifetime. The most common reason they change is that they perceive the major parties as moving away from them or toward them on issues of fundamental importance, including economics and racial liberalism. They change much less often because of the performance of a party in office or because they change their ideology or issue preferences.
In The American Voter, Miller and Converse wrote about partisanship as a result of socialization; they argued that partisanship shapes the perceptions of events, of candidates, and the vote. Kollman and Jackson don’t necessarily argue with this. The American Voter portrayal of partisanship remains robust and is good at predicting the vote. In contrast, Kollman and Jackson focus on the dynamics of partisanship and how partisanship changes. Group memberships based on interests and elements of socialization determines partisanship. It’s malleable and they model it as a form of what’s called Bayesian updating, a method of modeling how people incorporate new information in their decisions.
Kollman and Jackson are continuing to analyze the patterns from the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future if the two parties take different positions. The chart below shows how different groups of voters would respond if the Democratic Party moved to the left. What they find, first, is that partisanship becomes more Democratic for every group as the Republicans become more extreme. African Americans are complex in that they prefer the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, but their partisanship actually drops away if the Democratic Party moves to the left or moves to the right. Among white voters, the Democratic Party would lose partisans (and votes) if it moved to the left.
The trends of both parties away from the political center are worrisome for many people. Extreme party positions, including the pursuit of extralegal strategies to either pass policies or hold and maintain power, could become more likely as parties become more extreme.
Rob Franzese: What Causes People to Become Political Extremists?
What explains the rise of far-right nationalist-xenophobic and rightwing populism in the United States and other developed demoocracies? Robert Franzese presented research to address this question.
Scholars have noted that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-government sentiments correspond to a sea-shift of white working class voters to the right. One explanation for this shift is the notion that people have been left behind socioeconomically, and experience angst as a result. While support for parties farther to the right increased everywhere, it is especially notable in regions experiencing economic hard times, demonstrating support for these economic explanations of voting behavior.
Surveys have examined whether the shift to the right was attributable to socioeconomic malaise and decline, or whether it was due to cultural status threat. The data from these surveys seem to suggest that the political shift resulted from preceved xenophobic threats and it doesn’t have anything to do with the economic conditions.
However, Franzese contends that this conclusion is both wrong and wrong-headed. Instead of either/or explanations for political shifts, he suggests that we think in terms of both/and. Both neighborhood socioeconomic malaise and xenophobic anxiety associated with cultural change are both part of a broader sense of socioeconomic and cultural threat, as described in the graphic below. Franzese emphasized the importance of heterogeneity of perceptions. Some people are more susceptible to demagogic railing against the elite, the media, and foreigners. Other people will be immune, and may even become more repulsed by populist appeals.
This approach shows that the socioeconomic conditions the individual experiences are partly contributing to social-cultural threat perceptions that produce support for extremism. It’s not just economic hardship that creates the response, but economic hardship contributes to the sense in some respondents that their group is being left behind.
Extremism, especially far-right extremism, is a rising threat to democratic society. Therefore, understanding better the provenance of this rising far-right extremism and concomitant rise in rightwing populism is urgently essential. Casting the possible causal processes as some xenophobic or socioeconomic threat perception is unhelpful. These processes are better understood as complementary.
Pauline Jones: Democratic Survival, Using Lessons from the Muslim World
Pauline Jones notes that many people think that democracy is either unlikely or impossible and due to familiar tropes that Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible.However she contends that democracy and Islam are not incompatible at all. Muslim democracies exist all around the world. Several Muslim-majority countries have transitioned to democracy in the latter half of the 20th cenury, and there are Muslim-majority democracies in multiple diverse regions across the world.
Survey research shows popular support for democracy among Muslims, and that Muslims are mostly supportive of democracy as a form of government, and they do not view democracy as incompatible with their religious principles or institutions. Furthermore, democracy itself is in a constant state of struggle to survive. Jones describes democracy not as an outcome, but a process toward resilience. Democracies are constantly undergoing a test of vitality.
There are two key dimensions to typologizing varieties of democratic vitality. The first is duration: the length of time that a country maintains a certain level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Both geographically and temporarily, it’s important to consider the context of that particular democratic state. The second dimension is trajectory: the overall trend in a country level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Trajectory measures how consistently a country has improved or maintained the level of democracy over time, since its transition.
To measure the level of democracy, Jones uses the Varieties of Democracy Electoral Democracy Index (DDI). This score focuses on the role of elections as the core feature of democracy, and includes aspects of the political system that increase the likelihood that elections will result in democratic outcomes. She then created a typology based on the dimensions of duration and trajectory, which describes four modes of democratic survival, depicted in the graphic below. Democracies are grouped into categories including striving, thriving, waning, and backsliding.
Striving democracies have short duration, but an upward trajectory. The thriving category is the best case scenario: long duration and upward trajectory. In the waning category there is neither duration, nor trajectory. Democracy is just not taking hold, and this is where you might see the transition away from democracy. Democracies in the backsliding category have long duration, but have a downward trajectory.
Jones investigated eight Muslim majority countries and fit them to these modes: Albania, Malaysia, Mali, Tunisia, Indonesia, Senegal, Kyrgystan, and Turkey. She found, surprisingly, that for that most of the Muslim-majority countries in the sample were striving are thriving.
The key takeaway from this research is that democracy is an ongoing struggle to survive. Jones challenged the audience not to think about democracy as meeting some threshold, but rather as a sort of ongoing struggle, and to think about it as varying degrees of vitality, as opposed to focusing on the mortality of democracy. This, she concludes, allows us to have some degree of cautious optimism. Democracy faces constant challenges; survival is just a matter of the degree of the threat and the strength of the institutions meeting that threat.
Vincent Hutchings delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies on March 31, 2021.
Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan at the inaugural lecture on March 31, 2021.
Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the landmark study An American Dilemma, believed that education was the key to racial progress. Myrdal wrote “There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Vincent Hutchings began his inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies by citing this quote, and immediately calling it into question. Is it true that policies aimed at alleviating the racial wealth disparities would gain more support if only whites knew the true extent of the gap?
A noteworthy aspect of the recent protests against police brutality and racial inequality has been the extent to which white Americans were participants in greater numbers than in the past. Even before the events of 2020, numerous surveys show whites becoming more racially progressive and acknowledging the reality of racial bias against Blacks. But does that mean that whites will support policies to reduce racial disparities? Professor Hutchings suggests that this is an example of a principle-policy gap; whites are prepared to acknowledge that injustice exists in principle, but they may not be willing to support redistributive policies.
The research team posited that the way the information was framed would be important. Past studies and media headlines about wealth disparities tend to frame the issue in terms of Black disadvantage. It’s less common to see a focus on the ways whites are advantaged.
A first study, conducted in June 2020, surveyed 2,024 online respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned either to a control group, where they were merely provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, or to one of two treatment conditions that provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, as well as textual and visual information on the current size of the Black/white racial wealth gap based on information from the 2017 Survey of Consumer Finances. The first treatment group received information framed in terms of Black disadvantage; the second treatment group received information with a white advantage frame.
The experiment was informative, but not persuasive. White participants in the treatment groups that received more information about the size of the racial wealth gap subsequently showed a better understanding of the issue. Black participants in the treatment groups also showed a fairly accurate assessment of the wealth gap, with less difference between the control and treatment groups. Neither whites nor Blacks in the treatment groups adopted different positions on racial policy. The one policy area where the study found some change was reparations; white respondents who received more information about the wealth gap were slightly more supportive of reparations.
If the study participants were informed about the wealth gap, but did not change their support for policies to address it, perhaps the treatments were not strong enough? In open-ended questions in the first study, some participants responded that they believed the wealth gap existed because whites worked harder than Blacks. To address these issues, the research team launched a second study in March 2021, building on the first study and specifically highlighting the limited impact of education on reducing the racial wealth gap.
The second study included four treatment groups and a control group.
Treatment group 1 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage.
Treatment group 2 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage.
Treatment group 3 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage, as well as information that Black household heads with a college degree have the same wealth as white household heads without a high school diploma.
Treatment group 4 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage, as well as information that white household heads without a high school diploma have the same wealth as Black household heads with a college degree.
Whites across the ideological spectrum are informed by the treatments in the second study. Surprisingly, the additional information about education was less effective than the general population frames.
Again, the results showed that a better understanding of the racial wealth gap does not make participants more progressive on racial policies. However, those in the first treatment group (receiving information framed in terms of Black disadvantage) showed mild increase in support for reparations.
Surprisingly, white liberals in the fourth treatment group (receiving information about the wealth gap and education, with a frame of white advantage) had a threat response to the treatment. When responding to questions about competition for jobs and political influence, white liberals in the fourth treatment group perceived more competition between racial groups. They responded to questions about racism, such as whether whites have greater wealth because they are naturally superior and whether the use of racial epithets by whites was acceptable, in less progressive ways.
These studies show the limits of providing information about racial disparities. People are not necessarily persuaded to close the gaps when they know more about them. When asked if he was discouraged by the outcome of the studies, Professor Hutchings said that as an educator, he is an optimist. He said that he is motivated by his students to keep asking questions about political opinions and behavior. Hutchings and his students will field new surveys to further examine these questions in the fall of 2021.
Racial attitudes among whites are changing. Vincent Hutchings began his presentation by noting that white Americans seem to be participating in protest against racial injustice at higher levels than in the past. Does this represent a true change in sentiment, or just an illusion?
Support for the proposition that Blacks encounter barriers that whites do not has been increasing among white Americans over the last several years, and has increased more notably since the start of the protests following the death of George Floyd. Whatever the reason, Hutchings says there is “no denying that a larger fraction of whites are now willing to acknowledge racial bias.”
Hutchings designed a study to test the limits of changing racial attitudes. Between 2014 and 2020, whites became more willing to attribute police killings to systemic bias, but this increased recognition of bias does not necessarily lead to support for policy change. For example, most whites oppose reparations and removing Confederate names from Army bases.
To explore whether more information about racial disparities would change the opinions of whites, Hutchings several of his students conducted a study that they called “The Black Truth Project.” During the summer of 2020, they conducted an online experiment on a sample of 965 white subjects. One third of the subjects, the control group, received information defining the racial wealth gap in the United States. There were two treatment groups in the study. Each group was presented with the definition of the racial wealth gap, plus data on the state of the wealth gap today. The first treatment group was shown data that was labeled to emphasize Black disadvantage; the second treatment group was shown the exact same data, but with a label that emphasized white advantage.
When asked about the size of the racial wealth gap, the control group said there was a moderate size racial wealth gap. The treatment groups were more inclined to report a larger gap. None of the groups perceived the wealth gap to be as large as it actually is, but those who received more information aligned more closely with the truth. These effects were seen across all groups, including gender, partisanship, level of education, and level of political knowledge.
Next, the study assessed whether learning about the racial wealth gap changes policy views. Respondents were asked how important it is for the federal government to pass laws to reduce racial wealth gap. Hutchings and his team found very little change in support for policies that would address the racial wealth gap.
While the experiment showed that respondents were open to learning new information, that information did not change support for policy. Hutchings and his team plan to conduct additional studies to follow up on their findings.
Why are protests happening now?
Over the past several months, people have asked Shea Streeter why protests are happening now. What’s different about 2020 that has led to over 8,000 individual protests all over the country? Streeter studies police killings, and says that this current movement isn’t about just one death, it’s the culmination of movement building that has been going on for years.
Streeter contends that the protests we see today actually represent two simultaneous movements: the movement for Black lives, and protests for police accountability. There are significant overlaps between these movements. The movement for Black lives centers around the idea that racism is deadly, which is played out in racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates, and well as vigilante killings of Blacks, like Trayvon Martin.
The police kill over a thousand people in the U.S. each year. That’s a rate five times higher than in Canada, and a hundred times higher than in the U.K. Intersection is where things get deadly. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police as whites.
Most protests emerge after police killings of African Americans. A large number of white Americans are killed by police officers, but their deaths are less likely to lead to protest. Overall 15% of police killings led to local organizing. But for African Americans, over a third of deaths at the hands of police lead to protests – seven times the response for whites.
Which means that the movement for Black lives is conducting a lot of work to hold police more accountable as well. How does the work of this movement develop? Streeter points to the example of Trische’ Duckworth of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Duckworth is the founder of an organization for survivors of sexual assault called Survivors Speak. When the surrounding community was impacted by COVID-19, the organization became involved with community aid. After an incident of police brutality in Ypsilanti in May, 2020, Survivors Speak was well-positioned to mobilize large numbers of people to protest.
The movements for Black lives and for police accountability have been building for years, says Streeter. Additional community support that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought communities closer, while also highlighting racial disparities. All of this helps to answer why protests are happening at this particular moment in history. It comes down to the fact that local organizers who built local movements with little national attention, are now seeing the culmination of the capacity they’ve built.
The force continuum
The majority of Americans believe the death of George Flyod at the hands of police was wrong, and that the police officers should be held accountable. In his presentation, Christian Davenport introduced the idea of the force continuum, or the level of force that is acceptable in a given situation but this concerns individual police behavior against an individual citizen. What do Americans think is acceptable regarding how police officers and protestors interact? Answering this question is the focus of his work. Davenport’s research takes a deeper look at what Americans will accept and whether these acceptable actions vary by race and ethnicity.
Davenport emphasizes that this work is important because there will be more protests and more protest policing in the future. Inappropriate behavior on either side will prompt reactions from the government and voters. Differences of opinion about actions that are acceptable are rooted in community perceptions of police.
With this in mind, Davenport conducted a study that asked respondents to rate whether a particular action was more intense or severe when done by police or when done by a challenger to the police. While many discussions about police and protestor behavior revolve around the distinction between violence and nonviolence, this study was a way to tease out differences in perception of very specific tactics.
The results showed distinct differences in perception by the race of the respondent. In general, whites tended to view actions taken by a challenger or protestor as more violent. African Americans see almost all police behavior as more intense or severe.
The long-term consequences of the differences revealed by this research are important, says Davenport. The divergence in attitudes may play into the perception by whites that Blacks are more violent. Whether or not we can move beyond these differences depends on our ability to understand these differences and move past them.
President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, remarked that the massacre at Mother Emanuel A.M.E., “was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress…”
In a previous study, we find evidence to suggest that violence against black people is more likely to be classified by the public as a “hate crime,” but that such incidents are also perceived as being isolated, less destructive, and also less impactful on society at large than an act of terrorism. This suggests that the label of “hate crime” might minimize the seriousness of racial violence and imply that those incidents do not stem from similar wide-spread networks and ideologies that are associated with terrorism.
Does the label used to describe acts of violence such as these influence perceptions of the event? Here’s what our research suggests.
Labels shift emotional responses to racial violence
Our January 2020 survey experiment asked 1,012 subjects to read a brief breaking news story about a fictional shooting with several casualties. In the experiment, we alternated whether we described the incident as a “hate crime,” a “terrorist attack,” or a “mass shooting.” We also alternated the race of the perpetrator and the victims, describing them as either white or black. Subjects read a tweet about the fictional incident and then answered questions about their emotional reactions, their own perceived likelihood of victimization, and what punishments they believed were warranted by the attack.
We find that, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, subjects reported higher levels of anger after reading about an incident labeled as a “hate crime,” when a white male perpetrator targeted a black university. We find that there are no distinct differences in anger when comparing “terrorism” and “mass shooting,” nor under those labels do the race of the victim or perpetrator influence levels of anger.
While likelihood of personal victimization is slightly higher for those who see the hate crime condition with a white perpetrator, we see that this variable is not strongly influenced by treatments.
We also find that support for the death penalty to punish the shooting is significantly lower among subjects who read about a hate crime perpetrated by a black person.
The interaction of race and label matter as well
But, do all people perceive violence the same way? We cannot take for granted that violence, and racial violence at that, is viewed the same way by members of different racial groups, especially when long legacies of violence are in play.
Therefore, we also look at how these labels might elicit distinctive responses among white and non-white participants. Stratifying our sample this way, we find that there are distinct responses among members of different racial groups. Non-white respondents indicated greater support for the death penalty to punish the crime in all conditions that had a white perpetrator, regardless of the label. However, we see little difference across conditions among white subjects.
Racial group attachment moderates these in a way that we might expect – the lowest support for the death penalty is among white subjects with high racial group attachment who read about a hate crime committed by a white perpetrator. Among non-white subjects we see that higher racial attachment is associated with greater support for the death penalty in all conditions with a white perpetrator. Support is consistent in conditions with a black perpetrator.
Additionally, non-white subjects who read about an act of terrorism committed by a white actor reported a higher likelihood of victimization than white respondents in the same condition.
We also find that anger is stable for all, white and non-white subjects, who saw a terrorism condition, regardless of if the perpetrator is white or black.
Anger increases slightly among non-white people who saw a mass shooting targeting black people. But, anger is significantly higher among non-white people who read about a hate crime targeting black people, when compared to those who read about a hate crime targeting white people. We see no significant changes among white subjects across these conditions.
Labels can send a powerful message to the public
While the label “terrorism” has come to be associated with acts of violence committed by Islamists, the term has long been used by black people to describe white violence against them. Regardless of legal parameters, we wondered if using the term “hate crime” to instead describe these acts minimizes public perceptions about them. Our research suggests that calling an act of violence a “hate crime” has little effect on perceptions of violence for white Americans. For non-white Americans, however, we find that this label is associated with greater anger in reaction to the incident.
The boundaries of the law determined the charges levied against the perpetrator of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. killings, but the press, politicians, and the public grappled for language to describe them. Our research suggests that while the the term “terrorism” seems more rhetorically evocative of a long history of violence against black people, it does not necessarily evoke greater anger than use of the term “hate crime” or “mass shooting.” In fact, among non-white respondents, “hate crime” elicits the greatest anger.
Emotions hold powerful political potential, anger in particular has been shown to incite political participation. The words used to describe violence do matter, for the images and narratives they conjure, as well as the emotions they evoke.
Kiela Crabtree (@kielacrabtree) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan.
Corina Simonelli (@CorinaSimonelli) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.