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Racist or not racist? Political differences in the perception and definition of racism


“Is that racist?” While sometimes the answer may seem obvious, other times it may be more controversial. Heated debate in the U.S. about the extent that racism is still a problem may be partially due to disagreements about what counts as racism, an underexplored topic in social psychology. These two online studies asked U.S. adults to judge behaviors and scenarios on whether or not they were racist. In Study 1, I found large, significant differences between liberals and conservatives in both the number and content of behaviors judged to be racist. In Study 2, I investigated liberals and conservatives’ definitions of racism, both by explicitly asking about their definitions of racism and in judging scenarios that were structured to investigate definitional differences. I found that conservatives favored individual-focused definitions and liberals leaned more towards a systemic/structural definition of racism. When judging scenarios, conservatives placed more importance on whether an act treated people differently based on race, while liberals were relatively more open to judging an act racist that affected people differently, as well as one that treated people differently. In all, liberals and conservatives do not see racism the same way, which likely makes it harder for them to understand each other’s viewpoints. Further exploration of these differences may help show why what one side calls “racism” the other calls “playing the race-card.”

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