When are Explicit Racial Appeals Accepted? Examining the Role of Racial Status Threat


Evidence has emerged demonstrating that whites no longer reject negative, explicit racial appeals as they had in the past. This seeming reversal of the traditional logic of the powerlessness of explicit appeals raises the question: Why are explicit racial appeals accepted sometimes but rejected at other times? Here, I test whether the relative acceptance of negative, explicit racial appeals depends on whites’ feelings of threat using a two-wave survey experiment that manipulates participants’ feelings of threat, and then examines their responses to an overtly racist political appeal. I find that when whites feel threatened, they are more willing to approve of and agree with a negative, explicit racial appeal disparaging African Americans—and express willingness to vote for the candidate who made the explicit racial appeal.

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  1. 1.

    White (2007) also finds that explicit appeals can be effective among Blacks—but this is a different process than for whites, as it is activating in-group considerations rather than out-group animus (White 2007).

  2. 2.

    Part of a larger, multi-investigator survey (Hetherington et al. 2018). The first wave was fielded from November 27, 2018 to December 20, 2018 and the second wave was fielded from January 22 to February 7, 2019.

  3. 3.

    Modeled off Craig and Richeson's (2018) treatment.

  4. 4.

    Because the item asks about the news article and does not directly ask for their attitudes about demographic change, self-monitoring effects are relatively unlikely.

  5. 5.

    Some of the language used in this flyer was adapted from the language in one of Valentino, Neuner, and Vandenbroek’s (2018a)’s explicit racial appeals. In their work, this language is part of a news story about the Affordable Care Act.

  6. 6.

    All power, balance, and manipulation tests presented in Online Appendix B, along with descriptive statistics of key variables and the demographic and ideological features of the sample.

  7. 7.

    2018 ACS Estimates obtained from IPUMS USA, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org (Ruggles et al. 2020).

  8. 8.

    Note that this is not simply a feature of people who are higher in racial resentment or Republicans. In the control condition, there were almost no differences in anxiety development. See Online Appendix B.

  9. 9.

    However, it does require the assumption of sequential ignorability—I address this assumption by (1) random assignment of treatment and (2) inclusion of potential confounders like racial resentment. See Online Appendix B for greater discussion of this assumption, the mediation model, and for sensitivity tests.

  10. 10.

    See Online Appendix B for greater discussion of how this statistic is obtained.

  11. 11.

    Regression-based mediation models similarly reveal significant effects at various times for anxiety, anger, and worry. See Online Appendix C.9 for more detail, and supplemental analyses of subgroup analyses in Online Appendix C.10.

  12. 12.

    Anxiety and anger correlate at 0.70; anxiety and worry correlate at 0.78; and anger and worry correlate at 0.74.


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I thank Dave Attewell, Frank Baumgartner, Lucy Britt, Ted Enamorado, Marc Hetherington, Andreas Jozwiak, Eroll Kuhn, Santiago Olivella, Tim Ryan, Candis Smith, Jim Stimson, Emily Wager, Ismail White, members of the University of North Carolina’s American Politics Research Group and State Politics Working Group, discussants and participants of the 2019 meetings of the Harvard Experimental Working Group, Midwest Political Science Association, Society for Political Methodology, and American Political Science Association, and the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback, helpful comments, and support. Replication materials are available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/ZNBYLT.

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Christiani, L. When are Explicit Racial Appeals Accepted? Examining the Role of Racial Status Threat. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09688-9

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  • Racial priming
  • Threat
  • Racial attitudes
  • Public opinion