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Racial Appeals in a "Post-Racial" Environment

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Principal Investigator(s):

LaFleur Stephens
Princeton University
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Sample size: 2550
Field period: 2/3/2011-6/21/2011



This experiment tests the effectiveness of different race-based appeals utilized by black and white candidates. While the racial priming theory argues that explicit racial appeals are less effective than implicit racial appeals, I theorize and demonstrate that not only are explicit racial appeals effective under certain circumstances, but that black candidates have an incentive to use them. Since the theory of racial priming has largely been tested in the context of White Republicans, the full landscape of racial appeals was previously unknown. Specifically, white voters do not reject explicit racial appeals when the candidate is depicted as black. This caveat was previously unknown, and represents an important revision to the theory of racial priming.


H1: Implicit appeals are more effective than explicit appeals when a candidate is white. But, when a candidate is black, white voters will not distinguish between the two types of appeals.

H2: White respondents will be more inclined to support a black candidate with an explicit message, relative to a white candidate with the identical message.

H3: Racial conservatives will be more receptive to explicit racial appeals than racial liberals.

Experimental Manipulations:

The design was a 2 x 4 factorial plus control. All participants read a mock news article involving a recent speech about education, delivered by a fictitious Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, named Greg Davis. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of eight treatment conditions in which Davis’ race was manipulated (black or white), and the type of appeal was manipulated (racially liberal, deracialized, implicit, explicit). In the control condition, race was not cued and the appeal was racially neutral.

Key Dependent Variables:

Likelihood of voting for candidate.

Summary of Findings:

The results of this experiment inform our understanding of what types of racial appeals are effective, and who is allowed to use these appeals. We learn that in the case of white candidates, implicit appeals are acceptable and are preferred to explicit racial appeals. In contrast, in the case of black candidates, white voters do not make a distinction between implicit and explicit racial appeals—the support that the black candidate with an explicit appeal received was equivalent to that of a black candidate with an implicit appeal. These results are consistent with Hypothesis 2, which expected that race would moderate receptivity to racial appeals, such that white respondents in the aggregate would reject explicit appeals when the candidate is white, but accept them when the candidate is black. While explicit racial appeals are “beyond the pale” for white candidates, the findings presented here suggest that the same does not hold true for African American candidates.


"Beyond the Pale: White Americans' Conditional Response to the Norm of Racial Equality." Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 30th - September 2nd, 2012, New Orleans, LA.


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