Troubling New Research on Political Bias and Bigotry
Talk about a strange political year. African Americans and Jewish Americans are typically the two most reliable liberal voting blocks in the country, and yet there have been troubling news stories and now data regarding the people who support them. For example, Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar sparked outrage by doubling down on comments many perceived to be anti-semitic. She is a Democrat who typically gets Democrat votes. Such left-wing hostilities towards Jews have become so bad in the United States that some American Jews are openly considering leaving the country and moving to Israel. Similar difficulties face African Americans. Ilhan Omar’s controversy arrived barely two months after the racist “Uncle Tim” attacks propagated by liberals at African American Senator Tim Scott. These attacks were so markedly racist that the trend had to be shut down by Twitter. More recently, similarly racist “Uncle Clarence” attacks were levied at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after he voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. White liberals on Twitter even invoked the “N-word,” and were called out in a remarkable piece by a Columbia University sociology professor.
These are the kind of racist behaviors that many associate with conservatives. But to be clear: Those are liberals expressing racist vitriol towards blacks and Jews. And again, blacks and Jews tend to faithfully vote for liberal Democrats.
Of course, it is easy to pass off such vitriol as primarily political and not targeted at racial or ethnic groups. And indeed, social psychological research has demonstrated for years that both liberals and conservatives tend to show more biases against racial groups when they think members of those groups disagree with them politically. For example, a well-known study showed that the conservative bias against blacks was essentially because most conservatives believed that blacks tended to be politically liberal. However, when faced with black conservatives, the usual pattern reversed, and liberals—not conservatives—showed a dislike for blacks.
Although politically motivated, this does not mean such biases have no societal consequences. After all, these are real ethnic groups and the dislike for them isn’t fictitious, no matter its motive. And that should matter. To better understand what is going on, in two recent studies, I and my colleagues tried to parse whether or not liberals and conservatives actually like representative members of these two groups.
To do so, we took a trait from each group that is strongly empirically associated with the group in the real world and asked people what they thought about the resulting representative set of group members. So, for African Americans, we asked participants what they thought of “African American women/men who believe in the Bible.” This is a trait highly representative of African Americans: In the modern United States, Pew Data reveal that 77% of African Americans believe that “the Bible is the Word of God.” For Jews, we asked participants how they felt about “Jewish women/men who are strong supporters of the nation of Israel’s interests.” This is a trait highly representative of American Jews, with Gallup survey estimates suggesting that 90% of Jews in the United States show support for Israel.
So what happens if you ask people about African American and Jewish persons in this way? The data could not be more clear: Many liberals really dislike both African Americans and Jewish persons who possess these highly representative traits; and conservatives like them just fine.
That doesn’t mean that all liberals are racist, of course. In fact, our data clearly show that certain types of authoritarian liberals are particularly prone to disliking these groups. And it is worth noting that both of the traits selected and highlighted—being religious and supporting Israel—are traits people associate with conservatives. Both African Americans and Jewish Americans also possess collective traits that, if highlighted, would lead liberals to like them more (and conservatives to like them less). So this finding is likely is more about strong partisan beliefs than about racial or ethnic groups per se.
But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. To understand how important this is, consider that extrapolating from survey data, a cautious estimate of the number of African Americans who believe in the Bible is 30 million persons, and a cautious estimate of the number of Jewish Americans who support Israel is 4 million persons. That is a lot of people—and there is a certain kind of quite pervasive liberal who is inclined to strongly dislike large groups of African Americans and Jewish Americans for those reasons.
We should all care deeply about this alarming trend. When conservatives show biases against racial and minority groups, it does not matter why they do it. It is rightly called out for the bigotry and bias that it is. But we must apply an equal standard. When liberals show similar biases, we must—and with equal vigor—call out their bigotry and bias. Evidence from scientific studies reveals that when presented with traits that are representative of what those groups are actually like in reality, many liberals really dislike African Americans and Jews. It doesn’t matter which political aisle the bigot resides in; it is still bigotry all the same.