Why Racist White Voters Often Favor Black Republicans

Can white voters who back a Black candidate still hold racist beliefs and views?

That question has come to the fore in the wake of Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in the blueish state of Virginia. Conservatives were quick to counter claims that Youngkin’s win represented the effectiveness of stoking racial fears with results from Virginia’s down-ballot election for lieutenant governor — a contest where the Republican candidate, Winsome Sears, made history by becoming the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, for example, emphatically mocked the notion that “voters called white supremacists elected a Black Lt. Gov.” Conservative commentators on Fox News and Twitter, including Sears herself, also used the historic victory as an ostensible shield against accusations of Republican racism.

But supporting a Black candidate hardly precludes voters from harboring racist beliefs and motivations. Republicans are increasingly more likely than Democrats to hold prejudiced views of minorities, so Black Republicans like Sears often draw especially strong support from white Americans with otherwise anti-Black views simply because they draw most of their support from Republican voters.

A clear example of this was in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, when Ben Carson made a bid to become the GOP’s first African American presidential nominee. Support for Carson was positively correlated with the belief that Black Americans have too much influence on U.S. politics, according to data from Washington University in St. Louis’s American Panel Survey (TAPS) in late 2015:

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Whites who thought African Americans had “far too little” influence disliked Carson and preferred Hillary Clinton by 60 percentage points in a hypothetical general election matchup. Meanwhile, Carson was very popular among whites who were most concerned about African Americans having “too much” influence in politics. So much so that whites who thought African Americans have “far too much” influence preferred Carson to Clinton by 45 points.   

Again, much of that relationship is down to partisanship — Republicans are more likely to hold prejudiced views and also more likely to support a Republican candidate. But that’s the point: For many white GOP voters, anti-Black views don’t seem to get in the way of supporting a Black Republican.

You can see a similar pattern in the January 2016 American National Election Studies Pilot Study. Carson received more favorable evaluations among the sizable minority (40 percent) of overtly prejudiced whites who agreed with the racist stereotype that “most African Americans are more violent than most whites.” This group rated Carson significantly more favorably on a 0-100 scale than the white moderate Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush (52 to 39, respectively). Then-candidate Donald Trump was the only politician in the survey who was rated higher than Carson among overtly prejudiced whites.1                

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The contrast between how prejudiced whites rated Carson and Obama is rather revealing, as well. The sharp negative relationship between support for Obama and the endorsement of anti-Black stereotypes is consistent with several studies showing that prejudice was an unusually strong predictor of opposition to Obama from the 2008 election through the end of his presidency. These patterns also fit well with other political science research showing that racially prejudiced whites tend to be more opposed to Black Democrats than to white Democrats.          

To make sense of why racially prejudiced white Americans are willing to support some Black candidates, it is worth considering why they so strongly oppose Black Democrats in the first place. Given the racialized nature of the two-party system in the United States, most Black political candidates are Democrats who embrace liberal positions on issues of race and justice. When asked whether they would support such a candidate, research shows that racially prejudiced white voters worry that these candidates will represent the interests of Black Americans, both because of a shared African American identity  and because Democrats are perceived as the party more supportive of Black interests. So, it makes sense that racially resentful white Americans oppose candidates like Obama, as his racial identity and partisanship signaled to voters that he was more supportive of Black interests than prior presidents. 

Put another way: Racially prejudiced white voters are not opposed to Black candidates simply because they are Black, but because they believe that most Black candidates will fight for “those people” and not “people like us.”

Black Republicans, on the other hand, are perceived differently by racially prejudiced white Americans. Their embrace of the Republican Party and its conservative ideology help assure racially prejudiced whites that, unlike Black Democrats, they are not in the business of carrying water for their own racial group. Instead, they are viewed as distinct from other Black elites. If Blackness is viewed as intertwined with a kind of racial liberalism that is antagonistic to the interests of white Americans, Black Republicans’ partisan and ideological commitments allay concerns that they are for “them,” not “us.”

This argument is buttressed by more recent scholarship in political science, which has found that Black candidates who embrace a “bootstrap” ideology — an ideology that focuses on individual versus structural explanations of inequality — are more positively evaluated by racially prejudiced whites relative to their white competitors. Explaining this finding, the authors note that racially prejudiced white voters “might find black Republicans delivering an individualism message more favorable than they might find other candidates delivering a similar message precisely because the aesthetic character and the partisan affiliation of the messenger contradict racial and political expectations.” LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, a professor of political science at Princeton University, similarly shows in her book “Race to the Bottom” that racially resentful whites respond well to Black candidates who take stances against the expected positions of their racial group — a phenomenon she calls “racial distancing.”

Finally, voting for Black Republicans may also be especially appealing to racially prejudiced whites because it assuages concerns of being seen as racist by enabling them to say, in essence, “I can’t be racist! I voted for a Black candidate!” Psychologists call this “moral credentialing,” and there’s even some evidence that voters who expressed support for Obama shortly after the 2008 election felt more justified in favoring white Americans over Black Americans. Electing a Black Republican like Sears, who railed against critical race theory during the run-up to the election and supports voting restrictions that adversely affect racial minorities, is similarly used as a symbolic shield by the entire party from inevitable charges of championing racist policies. As we mentioned earlier, conservative media outlets and politicians are already weaponizing her victory against anyone who would dare suggest so.    

But, of course, the role race and racism play in American politics is much more nuanced than those simplistic defenses suggest. When racially prejudiced whites oppose Black candidates, it’s not just because of the candidate’s skin color. It’s also because they perceive (sometimes wrongly) that Black candidates, especially Black Democrats, have ideological commitments that are at odds with the interests of white Americans. Likewise, when racially prejudiced whites support Black Republicans, it’s hardly the case that they’ve become progressive on race. Racially prejudiced whites did not vote for Sears because they appreciated her attachment and commitment to Black people. They were willing to support her because they discounted it. 

Race, after all, is a social construct. It has meaning because we imbue it with meaning. Racially prejudiced whites are not hostile to Blackness, per se. They are hostile to a particular manifestation of Blackness — one that reflects a commitment to racial justice and the advancement of the group’s collective goals. Racially prejudiced whites are not bothered much by a manifestation of Blackness that is ideologically consistent with their own identities and attitudes. Why would they be? Sears’s conservative politics don’t threaten the racial hierarchy, and her candidacy provides cover for a party that’s often antagonistic to racial minorities. For racially prejudiced whites, the real question is what is there not to love about Black politicians like Sears?