Three-Fifths a Racist: A Typology for Analyzing Public
Opinion About Race
Michael A. Neblo
Published online: 10 April 2008
Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008
Abstract Is race politics primarily about symbolic racism, principled conserva-
tism, or group conﬂict? After almost three decades, this debate among some of our
best scholars seems scarcely closer to resolution, yet the theoretical, empirical, and
normative issues at stake remain enormous. All three parties to the debate falsely
assume that the causal structure driving opinion about race policy is homogenous.
I reorient and advance the debate by showing how a methodological shift to a data-
driven taxonomy of subjects can elucidate how race politics really is complex. I use
this taxonomy to run new analyses, and to explain and assess the seemingly con-
tradictory results of previous contributions to the debate. Each of the major parties
to the debate is partially right in their account of public opinion about race politics,
but about independently identiﬁable sub-sets of subjects.
Keywords Race politics Á Public opinion Á Symbolic racism
The bedrock assumption motivating modern liberal democracy is that we should
expect, and therefore accommodate as best we can, reasonable disagreement
between citizens on vital matters.
But what are the limits to and consequences of
accommodating such disagreement? For example, what are we to make of someone
who opposes afﬁrmative action because he or she dislikes blacks? While reasonable
people can surely disagree about afﬁrmative action, just as surely we would agree
M. A. Neblo (&)
Department of Political Science, Ohio State University, 2114 Derby Hall,
154 N. Oval Mall, Columbus, OH 43210, USA
At least this is the historical root of liberal democracy, born out of the bloodshed of the wars of religion,
and largely conﬁrmed by subsequent experience. ‘‘Reasonable disagreement’’ and ‘‘public reason’’ are
terms of art in political philosophy. I intend them in roughly the sense made famous by Rawls (1993).
Polit Behav (2009) 31:31–51