Did George Bush's use of the Willie Horton story during the1988 presidential campaign communicate most effectively when no one noticed its racial meaning? Do politicians routinely evoke racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments without voters' awareness? This controversial, rigorously researched book argues that they do. Tali Mendelberg examines how and when politicians play the race card and then manage to plausibly deny doing so.
In the age of equality, politicians cannot prime race with impunity due to a norm of racial equality that prohibits racist speech. Yet incentives to appeal to white voters remain strong. As a result, politicians often resort to more subtle uses of race to win elections. Mendelberg documents the development of this implicit communication across time and measures its impact on society. Drawing on a wide variety of research--including simulated television news experiments, national surveys, a comprehensive content analysis of campaign coverage, and historical inquiry--she analyzes the causes, dynamics, and consequences of racially loaded political communication. She also identifies similarities and differences among communication about race, gender, and sexual orientation in the United States and between communication about race in the United States and ethnicity in Europe, thereby contributing to a more general theory of politics.
Mendelberg's conclusion is that politicians--including many current state governors--continue to play the race card, using terms like "welfare" and "crime" to manipulate white voters' sentiments without overtly violating egalitarian norms. But she offers some good news: implicitly racial messages lose their appeal, even among their target audience, when their content is exposed.
"In this excellent study, Tali Mendelberg develops an original argument about the use of implicit racial appeals in political campaigns. She creatively deploys a variety of methods and offers important insights in whites' racial thinking and particularly into the ways modern politicians play upon anti-black racial prejudice and antagonism while retaining respectability. . . . The book is an important contribution to political psychology: a case study in one critical realm of politics (interracial or ethnic relations) of how affect and cognition interact with political culture, processes, incentives, and institutions to shape political behavior at both the elite and mass levels. Unusually for a study so thoroughly grounded in social science methods, the book also treats and links its arguments to the history of U.S. race relations, adding to its value."--Robert Entman, Political Psychology
"[A]n impressive and controversial analysis. . . ."--Scott Althaus, Harvard International Journal of Press and Politics 2002
"[G]roundbreaking on a number of levels and deserves attention from students of race, mass media effects, campaigns, elite behavior, and public opinion. . . It should be praised for the sheer volume of empirical evidence it presents and for the high risk of disconfirmation this poses for its central thesis. It should be read not only by those interested in the historical and contemporary role of racial appeals in modern American campaigns, but also by those seeking a model for rigorous, multimethodological, empirical social science research."--Nicholas Valentino, Public Opinion Quarterly
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