Notes on: Bonilla-Silva, E. & Forman, T. (2000). "I am not a racist but…": Mapping White college students' racial ideology in the USA. Discourse and Society. 11 (1): 50 – 85.

Dave Harris

Existing surveys have underestimated the extent of prejudice in the White population because there is a new racial ideology — '"colourblind racism"'. They collected survey and interview data from three universities and found more prejudice in the form of 'a new racetalk' which appeared to not be racist although could be seen as 'congruent' with… '"laissez faire" or "competitive" racism.

Whites commonly deny that they are racists as 'discursive manoeuvres or semantic moves', but then go on to make negative statements about minorities — they are lazy --  or government affirmative action policies. Qualitative work has found these discursive manoeuvres [long list, 50, with some examples]. This clashes with research suggesting that racial attitudes have improved [this IS an improvement?], usually based on survey research [more examples, suggesting that racist governments or leaders are not popular]. This problem is that contemporary White racial views and how they appear to be contradictory.

They take a different conceptual perspective, seeing racial attitudes as part of a larger ideology that functions overall 'to preserve the contemporary racial order' in a complex way (51), and that there have been changes meaning that White privilege is now maintained in a new fashion, more 'covert, institutional, and apparently nonracial' [lots more references, 52], in contrast to Jim Crow racism. Direct racial discourse is avoided, but this 'effectively safeguards racial privilege' and states racial discussions. Overt discussions are taboo and so it is become difficult to assess racial attitudes and behaviour using conventional research.

They disagree with those who think there has been a positive change, drawing upon these normative changes in discourse and even racial etiquette. They see it as a rearticulation of dominant racial themes, less overtly addressing racial segregation, but focusing instead on resentment on matters such as 'affirmative action, government intervention and welfare'. There is a new 'racetalk'. This new racial ideology is still reproducing White supremacy. The search is for 'common interpretive repertoires… Storylines or argumentation schemata' [citing Van Dijk for the last one]. They found variance among individuals, but also 'global ideological views' they are not denying that 'individual modalities in people's accounts matter', but they prefer to focus on groups, and, generally to show there is a difference between in-depth interviews and views expressed in surveys. They think this will end the apparent paradox of White views.

There was a survey on social attitudes among college students in 1997 at four universities, in different regions of the USA. All were social science students. 90% agreed to participate leading to 732 completions, 541 of them White, the others too small for identification. The questions on racial attitudes were traditional ones used in previous national surveys and there are also questions on affirmative action, housing and other race related policy questions. Respondents chose answers from a closed ended question and also briefly explained their answer. There was a 90% completion rate. They did follow-up in-depth interviews with a random sample of the White students, but only at three universities, reducing the sample size to 451, although they were still happy about the regional diversity. They found no significant differences between those that took part and those who did not. They randomly selected 41 White college students and interviewed them. Three White graduate students and two White advanced undergraduate students did the interviews and they tried to match respondents by gender. Then an interview guide based on the survey instrument. Interviews ranged from 1 to 2 1/2 hours. The sample is a convenience sample with obvious limitations, but it still offers an opportunity to explore racial attitudes and the paradox of tolerance in surveys. These are 'higher social class young adults' (54), unusually, and this will help address the issue of whether racialist views expressed in interviews arose because typically respondents were lower SES. However, there were concerns that because these were social science students, we might expect them to have less racist views, or to represent and underestimate of the racial views of the White population [or to be more cautious?] However, they feel they can make comments about the nature of contemporary White students' racial attitudes and on the effectiveness of the interview method in terms of gaining valid data.

In terms of questions on affirmative action, [puzzling here, but that's the whole point — initially, 'if anything the interview respondents are slightly more likely to support affirmative action measures', but then 'Whites seem to openly oppose or have serious reservations about these programs, regardless of how the question is worded… For example 65% of White respondents disagree with occasionally providing special consideration to Black jobseekers' (52). So do they support in principle but not in practice?]. There is fear of the effects of affirmative action on their own life chances, despite research that apparently shows that programs have little impact on Whites, and anyway, middle-class backgrounds mean that the students are 'not in a vulnerable social position'.

'A very high proportion of Whites claim to approve interracial marriage, friendship with Blacks, and with people of colour moving into predominantly White neighbourhoods' (52). However, 'results based on to non-traditional measures of social distance from Blacks indicates something different' — 68% of Whites say they do not interact with any Black person on a daily basis and that they have not recently invited  Black person for lunch or dinner. This might just reflect a lack of opportunity to interact, however.

87% of Whites believe that 'discrimination affects the life chances of Blacks and approximately 1/3 agree with the statement that "Blacks are in the position that they are because of contemporary discrimination"'. However, 53% of White students were against using preferences as a criterion for hiring. 83% of them thought that Whites want to give Blacks a better break or do not care. [Detailed tables pages 56, 57].

It is then possible to see a variety of interpretations. Answers to the 'traditional questions' lead us to conclude that Whites are racially tolerant'. Looking at all the responses leads to the conclusion that 'Whites have contradictory racial views, however (57). Answers to the modern racism questions [including the ones about Whites supporting Blacks getting a better break, giving preference, invitations to meals] indicate that 'Whites are significantly more racially prejudiced in their views'. They went on to use the in depth interviews to make sense of these apparently conflicting findings.

They asked if respondents approved of interracial marriages. Then they examined their own romantic history and the sort of friends they had had, and 'their views on other matters because they contained information relevant to interracial marriage'. This yielded 'six categories' [supported interracial marriage/integrated life; supported interracial marriage/segregated life, reservations, both integrated and segregated, opposed, both integrated and segregated]. Five respondents in category one and lifestyles consistent with their views, 28 had reservations, seven claim to approve of intermarriage but had inconsistent lifestyles.

The second category [support interracial marriage/segregated life] was the most difficult to explain. One student believed that interracial marriage was totally legitimate as long as people loved each other, but had led a racially segregated life in an all-White upper middle class neighbourhood. He was ambivalent about whether or not he had ever been attracted to Blacks — he 'stuttered remarkably' in his answers (60), and the interviewers concluded that 'he is not attracted to Black women' which contradicts his colourblind approach to love. He also 'used all sorts of rhetorical strategies to save face'.

Some students had reservations about interracial marriages and lived a primarily segregated life, and this was the modal group. Their answers 'usually included the rhetorical moves of apparent agreement and apparent admission', such as formal statements of support for interracial marriages' together with 'statements qualifying the support in terms of what might happen to the kids' or parental approval, which the interviewer see as involving 'displacement' and a 'semantic move' [such as '"I certainly don't oppose the marriage"']. One respondent said she'd never been attracted to a Black person.

Even those with serious reservations sometimes [3 times] said that they saw nothing wrong with interracial relationships per se. [The transcripts show a lot of reservations and evasions — what the interviews call 'the apparent admission semantic move ("I would say that I agree with that")' (61), while they argue that the 'true feelings' were expressed in things like saying they will be bothered if daughters or sisters marry a Black person.

This is a clash with survey results where students seem to favour interracial contacts of all kinds. We see serious reservations if not opposition, but expressed concerns for others like offspring or the family. Some respondents themselves 'classified these arguments as excuses… Rationalisations' (62) it was easy to say that they had no problems with intermarriage, but 'very few do so in an unequivocal manner [which] gives credence to the argument that Whites' racial aversion for Blacks is deeply ingrained into their unconscious' [very strong conclusion] . Comments about romantic lives and friendships 'clearly indicate that rather than being colourblind, they are very colour conscious'.

Turning to affirmative action, they did not define it themselves, but asked how respondents defined it. Some respondents asked for a definition. 85% opposed affirmative action, more than in the survey., But only 1/4 opposed affirmative action 'in a straightforward manner'. 'In part, this may be the result of the general belief that if they express their views too openly on affirmative action, diversity, or any other race -related issue, they are going to be labelled as "racist"', and they did detect 'some of this reticence through discursive analysis: some expressed this concern explicitly, usually in the form of denying they were racists. Some were 'very sensitive' on this matter.

Some said they both supported and opposed, but they were 'able to make sense of respondents' vacillations' (63) by looking at responses to other questions. Overall, 'the "yes and no" response is really meant as "no"', because the no answer was stressed in subsequent comments, one admitted that 'topic avoidance by claiming ignorance and ambivalence' was really 'just semantic moves that allowed him to voice safely his opposition to affirmative action'. In one case where there was wavering, additional responses to later questions 'included the displacement semantic move,[ turning the question so what White people might think, or referring to what 'most people who disagree with affirmative action think'], but personal opinions emerged later.

Overall there is 'even more opposition to affirmative action than our survey results indicate', and this 'seems to be related to racial prejudice', even though many survey analysts doubt this and suggest instead opposition that 'is "political", "ideological", or that it expresses "value duality"' (65). They strengthen their case by noting that 27 of the 41 respondents 'used spontaneously one of two storylines or argumentation schemata… [Indicating]… That Whites seem to have a shared cognition and that these stories have become part of the ideological racial repertoire'. The two stories were '"the past is the past", and "present generations cannot be blamed for the mistakes of past generations"'. As an example of how they were used, one student said that Blacks should not be compensated for the history of oppression because she had nothing to do with it, and that you could not keep relying on it, that it was a crutch for Black people, that and that every individual should get on with it and achieve for themselves. She was quite angry and referred to '"supervictims"'.

They asked the subject to define racism and followed up. The common definition was '"prejudice based on race", "a feeling of racial superiority", "very stupid… Lots of ignorance", "psychological war", "hating people because of their skin colour", and "the belief that one race is superior to the other". Only five said that racism was 'societal, institutional, or structural, and only two thought it was 'part and parcel of American society. Few thought that America was racist or that they were systemic disadvantages. Overall 'Whites primarily think that racism is a belief that a few individuals and which might lead them to discriminate against some people' (66). Most had doubts about whether discrimination affects minorities significantly, although few did so consistently in all the questions.

There was a lot of hesitation and denial. It was common to use 'expressive.… utterances where the speaker makes known her or his attitudes to the hearer', suggesting for example that racism is an excuse used by minorities, that discrimination applies to Whites, that it's not an important factor and that Blacks should look to their own motivation, values or credentials. In one case, the topic was avoided by claiming ignorance, and 16 others used this move as well: in some cases it could be justified because they were not Black, but they were still 'providing racially charged answers', and showed some awareness of discrimination in the past, and general indecisiveness, especially when probed.

The researchers think that this lack of understanding leads to White people seeing minority complaints as 'whining, excuses or untruths' and this was specifically suggested by 14 respondents — one said Blacks expected to be treated badly, or that they had a poor work ethic, or were lazy to some extent, or overreacting to oppression of the past. There were also complaints about 'reverse racism, and 'a number of other racially perceived policies', part of the overall view that racism affects only a few individuals, including badly behaved policeman. They do not understand the argument about social relations which privilege Whites, nor have they grasped 'the new institutional, subtle and apparently nonracial character of the American racial structure'.

White students use a number of rhetorical strategies to voice racial views while avoiding condemnation. This also 'fits the theme of colourblind racism, the dominant racial ideology in the post-Civil Rights era' (69). They assume with all discourse analysts that people use language to construct versions of the social world, but they are also interested to locate people in the larger racial ideologies in social formations, how people take sides in controversies.

Some authors have called racial ideology laissez-faire racism, which blames Black people for their poor economic standing, '"a function of perceived cultural inferiority"' (69). Others refer to muted or disguised racism. This includes colourblind racism — the global justification used to defend the racial status quo. A table presents its central elements. Instead of detailed analysis they take two cases in each section — one typical one dissenter. They know from van Dijk that there are many ways to do discourse analysis, but they were interested in whether White respondents 'creatively discourse of difference about racial minorities', how they present the other is different, and also 'the strategies of group definition', and how the differences presented between other and the same. They were also interested in whether racial inequality 'was rationalised in a ''a pragmatic" way if liberal ideology failed to fit, with particular attention to 'argumentative strategies’( 69) of Apparent Sympathy, Justification: The Force of Facts, Reversal (blaming the victim), and Fairness'

If there was colourblindness, there would be no '"we – they" dichotomy of Blacks and Whites' [dubious]  but evidence for one is found in 'interview after interview'. One student says that, for example Blacks have a stronger sense of family, which he then goes on to explain as down to them not working as hard as his own family. He also codifies this by saying that they were raised in single-parent families, and stuck in a rut, so there family values were in fact inferior, even 'pathological' (71).

Most students 'were not racially tolerant': only five were 'racial progressives' who did not have a we – they dichotomy and found problems with the way in which Whites see Blacks, and understood discrimination. One acknowledged that her community was racist and that there were a lot of stereotypes, that discrimination was central in explaining the subordinate status of minorities, even that 'they themselves had problems' (72) and were not 'totally free from the influence of the dominant racial ideology'. Another one also used 'a variety of semantic moves to shield her from being perceived as prejudiced' [with a lot of hesitations and stuttering], and although racially tolerant, had no Black friends.

No one wants to be called racist, even members of the Klan. 'Most Whites support equal opportunity below against affirmative action', believe in integration 'but oppose government intervention to guarantee it', approve of interracial marriage but have qualifications, and find justifications to hold prejudicial views or positions. They are '"reasonable racists"… "Reasonable Negrophobes"', liberal humanists but also pragmatists believing in free markets so that 'little can be done to change the racial status quo'. This position was elicited by a lot of questions concerning a hypothetical company considering affirmative action — students were invited to consider the possibility both in general and in terms of practical questions, and some showed the typical pattern of principled agreement, but practical objections: one used 'reversal and fairness' to object, seeing affirmative action as '"reverse discrimination"' (73). Another thought a 'fair'policy should prevail and this would not need affirmative action. Most students had a rather formal and abstract view of fairness and equality which allowed them 'to defend all sorts of substantively unfair and unequal situations' including 'a company being 97% White' (74). Others showed 'apparent sympathy and force of facts', such as that Black people lived too far away to gain much benefit from passing, a version according to the authors of the '"separate but equal" argument'. One even argued that if the credentials of Black people are only equal, they should have taken the chance to do even better than their White rivals.

Racial progressives saw discrimination as widespread and provided more context and sympathy. One recognised the we – they strategy, and admitted there were cultural differences, but did not see them as any basis for discrimination. She said that her peers in high school did believe that Blacks were inferior, and that discrimination was the central reason for Blacks being worse off. She even had a case of racial discrimination that she had witnessed. She dismissed apparent reverse racism as a compensation for past oppressive history.

Overall, four points emerged. First, White students seemed more prejudiced in the interview then the survey. This was not selection bias because the respondents in the interview had the same survey answers, perhaps even more racially progressive ones overall. However differences in interview data were substantial. 80 to 90% approved of intermarriage in the survey, but only 30% in the interviews, and of those half of them had no interracial lifestyle. Many of them exhibited concerns about the unions. They interpreted the remainder as showing  'various discursive manoeuvres… as semantic strategies to avoid voicing personal reservations'. Overall, White approval of interracial marriages 'may be much less in reality', and the same can be said about responses to affirmative action and responses to questions about discrimination.

Second respondents were able to use 'a variety of semantic moves to save face'. They use phrases like I don't know, I'm not sure, I am not prejudiced or I both agree and disagree. They expressed 'social distance (in directness) or projection (displacement) usually followed by statements that betrayed these hesitations' (76). Van Dijk says that Whites do this because they don't want to be considered a racist and want to maintain a positive self image be tolerant and cooperative. The semantic moves were widely used — 68% of the time on the affirmative action question, 85% of the time on intermarriage. 'This amounts to a new racetalk', expressing racial views 'in a sanitised way'. Research in South Africa has found similar findings, and there might be similarities in the racetalk of White workers [citing Blauner 1989 and others]. Future research should examine whether there are class difference in the use of semantic moves.

Third a discursive approach is useful deciphering these meanings. For example 'liberal ideology is neither racist nor progressive' (77): the small number of racial progressives use liberal ideology so support interracial marriage and affirmative action and to state their views about discrimination is a central factor. They put these ideas in context, for example by recognising the effects of past and contemporary discrimination, and tended to focus on 'substantive rather than abstract equality and fairness'.

For most others, there was no particular ambivalence or dilemma between 'their commitment to equality of opportunity and their treatment of Blacks and other minorities… [They]… Were not truly ambivalent about crucial racial issues… [They]… Did not seem to experience cognitive dissonance'. They were 'captured within the discourse of liberalism', and their hesitations and contradictions were seemingly resolved 'by turning liberalism into an abstract matter' as a strategy, which permitted them to feel that the government and the Blacks were being unfair. When confronted with issues of past discrimination, their 'strong principled position collapsed' and they turned to 'practical rationality' instead of philosophical principles. They had no policy alternatives. This raises serious doubts about whether there are any real basis to unite White and racial minorities around, say class politics or colourblind policies. More than half of the respondents believed that the past was the past, and that present generations cannot be blamed, which functioned as 'and see egalitarian storylines' so criticise the intervention of the government, and these are found in other Western racialised societies. The ability to shift from strict liberalism to practical matters 'is central to racial ideology' — the ideology must be able to handle contradictions exceptions and change, and therefore must permit some '"room"', perhaps being seen as processes or practices rather than something eternal and fixed.

Fourth the defence of White supremacy does not depend on Jim Crow racism but a new racial ideology, as others have noted. There is a denial that racial inequality is structural. Inequality is blamed on 'Blacks' "cultural deficiency" (e.g. they are lazy their families are in shambles, their communities are bursting with crime)' (78). There is discrimination, but only from a small number of prejudiced individuals. This discrimination is used as an excuse. Hard work and less complaint will help Black people succeed. There is a belief in colourblindness, but most White students still concede Blacks as other, culturally inferior, pathological, to be blamed for their own lower status. At best they are to be pitied, at worst 'many openly expressed contempt and hostility'.

36 respondents used arguments of liberal ideology like fairness and equal opportunity, ignoring historical and contemporary racial discrimination, but drawing on a pragmatic stance to defend their views. They used the argumentative strategies as above. They invoke abstract elements of liberalism and made pragmatic claims about what were the facts. Equality was transformed into meritocracy which help them talk of undeserving minorities. Colourblind racism help them defend White supremacy while not appearing to be racist and believing in equality, while blaming Black people for their lower status, and seeing no point in institutional approaches like affirmative action. Colourblind racism must be therefore unmasked and shown to be '(White) colour-coded '. New questions for research must be developed especially on this form of new racism, nice Whiteness.

Note 1 talks about semantic moves to '"strategically manage relations between propositions" according to van Dijk. The content of speech acts sequences, links between propositions is what is crucial, and the intention is to avoid appearing racist. Note 3 defines interpretive repertoires as 'broadly discernible clusters turns, descriptions and figures of speech often assembled around metaphors or vivid images… Systems of signification and as the building blocks used for manufacturing versions of actions, self and social structures in talk… Some of the resources for making valuations, constructing factual versions and performing particular actions' [citing Weatherall and Porter]. Note 6 insists that their subjects 'primarily resorted to ideal and tactical rather than authentic self presentation'. Note 9 further spells out the strategies, from van Dijk: 'apparent sympathy means arguments or positions that place minorities at a disadvantage are constructed as being for their own good; fairness means arguments affecting the welfare of racial minorities are presented as liberal humanist, but with a concern for practical matters. In the European context they are exemplified by the expression of being firm but fair. Justification: the force of facts — factor used to justify negative positions. Reversal is the classic blaming the victim move.