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The Complexity of Policy Preferences: Examining Self-interest, Group-Interest, and Race Consciousness Across Race and Political Ideology


Research on attitudes toward racial policies has often been limited to a single racial group (e.g., either Whites or Blacks). These studies often focus on the role of self-interest, group-interest, and race consciousness, but this work has operationalized these concepts in different ways when studying White or Black respondents. Using data from a study in which Whites and Blacks living in Chicago were asked their attitudes toward affirmative action, we build on this body of research by using common measures of self-reported self-interest, group-interest, and race consciousness to predict support for affirmative action. We also examine whether the effects of these determinants are moderated by political ideology. We find that self-reported self-interest influences support for affirmative action among Black conservatives, but not among other respondents. Self-reported group-interest, however, has significant effects that differ between Blacks and Whites and across liberals, moderates, and conservatives. We also find that race consciousness affects respondents’ attitudes toward affirmative action, but that this effect is moderated by political ideology.

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  1. 1.

    While this dichotomous variable does not allow us to measure varying levels of support or opposition, it requires less cognitive effort on behalf of respondents, thus reducing satisficing (Krosnick, 1991; Krosnick & Presser, 2010). This is particularly important in the case of the survey used here, where respondents were asked their opinion on a variety of political issues.

  2. 2.

    Results are confirmed when using the more detailed 5-item measure of political ideology. We chose to use a trichotomous measure because the 5-item measure had small cell counts (less than 20) in some categories.

  3. 3.

    Internal reliability for this index was similar for both Black (Cronbach’s alpha = .83) and White (Cronbach’s alpha = .80) respondents.

  4. 4.

    We include party identification as a control variable, even though it is correlated with political ideology, because respondents of different political ideologies are found across all political parties. Nonetheless, results remain consistent when party identification is not included as a control variable.


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The authors would like to thank Maria Krysan for her feedback on previous versions of this paper.


Collection of data used in this study was funded by the Chicago Area Study Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.

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Correspondence to William J. Scarborough.

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The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent procedures for this study were approved by the authors’ institutional review board and carried through in the course of data collection.

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This paper used data from the 2008 Chicago Area Study (CAS) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and is dedicated in memory of Ingrid Graf, the 2008 CAS Project Coordinator.

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Scarborough, W.J., Holbrook, A.L. The Complexity of Policy Preferences: Examining Self-interest, Group-Interest, and Race Consciousness Across Race and Political Ideology. Soc Just Res 33, 110–135 (2020).

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  • Racial politics
  • Race
  • Policy
  • Affirmative action
  • Public opinion