How Do Racial Appeals Work in American Politics? Stephens-Dougan Book Investigates "Racial Distancing"

Aug. 20, 2020

Much social science research over the years focuses on how white, usually Republican, candidates use negative racial appeals and race in campaigns. But are Black politicians advantaged when they indicate that they are not “too liberal” on matters of race, by invoking negative stereotypes about other Black people? This strategy is what LaFleur Stephens-Dougan refers to as “racial distancing.”

LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, assistant professor of politics and CSDP faculty associate at Princeton University, describes, tests, and explores the implications of her theory of racial distancing in her new book, Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics (University of Chicago Press 2020).

Race to the Bottom argues that Black candidates are incentivized to go above and beyond a strategy of trying to ignore or remove race from the discussion (deracialization) by employing racial distancing – they actively engage with racial themes but do so in a way that signals that they are not beholden to their racial and ethnic minority constituents, especially African Americans.

“We know that white candidates and politicians use racial messaging to gain the support of white voters. Now I argue that the possible electoral benefits are so substantial that candidates of both parties and even candidates of color can find negative racial messaging appealing, and powerful, as a campaign strategy,” explains Professor Stephens-Dougan. In addition to statements by other Black politicians, she highlights some of former President Obama’s own rhetoric as just one example of racial distancing when he invoked negative stereotypes about Blacks,

While campaigning in 2008, and well into both of his terms as president, Obama repeatedly made calls for “Cousin Pookie,” “Ray Ray,” “Uncle Jethro,” and other fictitious black men to “get up off the couch,” “pull up their pants,” and take personal responsibility for their own lives, rather than making excuses or blaming racism for their circumstances.

Why would any candidate, black or white, Democratic or Republican, take the risk of being seen as racist by injecting race into their campaign? Because it works. It sends the reassuring message that they will not disrupt the racial status quo, and will not favor their racial and ethnic minority constituents. Stephens-Dougan demonstrates empirically, using a mixed-methods approach, the substantial incentives for Black candidates to inject negative stereotypes about other Blacks when pursuing votes from white voters.

And what about Black voters? While it might seem unlikely that Black politicians would risk “political suicide” by using this strategy of racial distancing, Black voters generally recognize that sometimes this is a necessary part of wooing white voters, and also is consistent with the history of Black elites disciplining the behavior of other African Americans.

Stephens-Dougan tests her theory of racial distancing by drawing on examples of candidates who have used this strategy, as well as a series of survey experiments with samples of white Americans and analysis of campaign ads, and so offers a broader theoretical account for “the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which racial prejudice is strategically appealed to in American politics.”

What are the implications for representing Black interests in the American political system? In Race to the Bottom, Stephens-Dougan demonstrates that our politicians are “incentivized to appeal to racial prejudices at the expense of some of the most marginalized in our society.”


Photo of LaFleur Stephens-Dougan
LaFleur Stephens-Dougan