An End Run Around Prejudice

Carefully crafted strategies can help minorities achieve political goals despite entrenched biases, say authors of new book
illustration of two people in profile
“Politics can change how people think about issues of race, without changing how they feel about other people,” says James Glaser. Illustration: Neil Webb
October 18, 2013

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In the decades following the civil rights movement and school desegregation, public school administrators in Jackson, Miss., had not been able to win voter approval for any bond issues supporting capital improvements. While the electorate was evenly divided racially, the public schools were predominantly African American.

In 1991, however, the city’s school committee took a new approach, and broke the bond issue into 10 separate, smaller sections, each devoted to a specific item, such as purchasing library books, replacing portable classrooms and building athletic facilities. Voters were allowed to check off which items they wanted to support. The result was that for the first time in 30 years, Jackson voters passed legislation to provide financial support for the schools, approving three of the most expensive items, about half the money the school system had requested.

Changing the format of the ballot question helped change the way white voters saw the issue. “Being able to say ‘no’ in some cases also liberated them to say ‘yes’ in other cases,” says James Glaser, professor of political science and dean of academic affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences. “That strategy—changing how voters were presented with an issue—in turn led to a different outcome, one that was much more sympathetic to African-American political interests in a place where African-American interests were not always well served.”

That’s one of the scenarios that Glaser and his former student, Timothy Ryan, A06, write about in their new book, Changing Minds, If Not Hearts: Political Remedies for Racial Conflict (University of Pennsylvania Press), which argues that while deep-seated racial attitudes may change slowly, carefully crafted political strategy, informed by a hefty dose of social psychology, can influence behavior in a surprisingly direct way.

And that, the authors say, can be used to advance measures that benefit minority communities. “Politics can change how people think about issues of race, without changing how they feel about other people,” says Glaser.

Timothy Ryan and his mentor James Glaser at Ryan’s 2006 graduation. Finding ways to reframe racial issues to alter outcomes is critical, says Ryan, now a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan. “When people are looking at questions of race, there is a visceral desire to protect the interests of their own racial group,” he says. “We’re looking for ways of shifting thinking away from that perspective.”

Negative opinions toward other racial groups—whether overt or subtle—can be very difficult to change in the short term, the authors say. “The idea is that you don’t need to change those feelings to make a difference on public opinion,” Ryan says. “What’s more constructive, more productive, is to change the modes by which people come to think about those issues.”

Ryan was Glaser’s research assistant during the early years of Tufts’ Summer Scholars Program. They worked on a project examining voter turnout using public opinion experiments, a research technique has become increasingly popular among political scientists over the past decade. Public opinion experiments—in which researchers examining real-world events alter an aspect of the experience for a random subset of the people involved—also played a key role in Changing Minds.

Real-life Strategies

The book examines a series of racially tinged issues, including the controversy over the presence of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse, the role of affirmative action in admissions policies at the University of Michigan, alleged racial profiling by state police in New Jersey and reparations for a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla. In each case, the book discusses either real-life strategies that were used to resolve the issue or public opinion experiments that offered promising solutions.

“This book is very much about ways of resolving problems,” Glaser says. “It goes beyond just creating knowledge by suggesting that there are ways of practicing politics that can help society move on.”

In Michigan in 2006, for example, voters were considering a referendum banning affirmative action. In this case, Glaser and Ryan devised a series of experiments, questioning voters about the role of affirmative action in college admissions.

When presented with a “standard” affirmative action question—which simply asked if black and Hispanic applicants should be given preference in admission at colleges and universities—about 30 percent of the respondents said they supported such policies.

But when alternative versions of the questions were posed, framing racial and ethnic preferences against the established practice of also giving preference to other groups of applicants—including athletes, children of alumni and artists and musicians—support for racial preferences increased to 49 percent. And when the question mentioned that students from affluent families were among those receiving special consideration, support for racial preferences rose to 51 percent.

In other words, switching the frame of reference changed the way people viewed a particular situation—and, thus, how they responded.

“When you introduce other things into the calculus, we argue, you can come to outcomes that are fairer and more equitable—and while often not to anyone’s complete satisfaction, fairer to minorities on issue after issue,” Glaser says.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.