Race, Racial Negativity, and Competing Conceptions of American National Identity

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 171 –185
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20973995
Race and racism have animated discussions of America’s
national identity and belonging since the nation’s inception,
and they continue to do so today. Black Lives Matter, foot-
ball players kneeling during the national anthem, street pro-
tests over police brutality, and the expansion of white
supremacist rhetoric during the Trump era all remind us that
race, racial negativity, and what it means to be fully American
are recurring and intertwined issues in American politics.
Assessments of attitudes about race and conceptions of
national identity also remain central themes in political sci-
ence research. Findings from a variety of disciplines show
that negative attitudes about African Americans as well as
ideas about national identity and belonging predict a range of
political and social attitudes, including views of cultural
minorities and multiculturalism, economic and social equal-
ity, support for political candidates of differing races, opin-
ions on immigration and the treatment of immigrants, and
support for public aid programs (Citrin et al., 1990; Citrin &
Wright, 2009; Knuckey & Orey, 2000; Kunovich, 2009;
Miller & Ali, 2014; Reeskens & Wright, 2013; Schildkraut,
2014; Sears & Kinder, 1971).
Despite the nation’s history of politically, economically,
and socially excluding non-whites, as well as much scholarly
interest in popular notions of what it means to be truly
American, we still have an incomplete picture of how indi-
viduals of different races vary in their views of national iden-
tity. We also have little sense about how inter-group differences
in beliefs about that identity correspond to attitudes about
minoritized racial groups. This study attempts to fill both of
these gaps. First, we investigate the extent to which Americans’
racial backgrounds influence their beliefs about the relative
importance of varying components of national identity.
Specifically, we ask whether Americans from different racial
groups prioritize different elements of American national
identity, testing an argument that whites, Latinos, and African
Americans place more importance on identity attributes dis-
proportionately held by their co-racial peers. We then shift to
an examination of the extent to which variations in beliefs
about national identity predict racial negativity toward African
Americans. Specifically, we explore how white, Latino, and
African American views about what is most important to
American national identity correlate with levels of racial nega-
tivity toward African Americans using widely used measures
of such concepts in political science. Our results reveal that
whites and Latinos who hold more exclusive notions of
national identity exhibit higher levels of racial negativity,
while non-blacks who stress the most inclusive conceptions of
Americanness espouse less racist sentiment.
973995APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20973995American Politics ResearchGraeber and Setzler
1High Point University, High Point, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
John Graeber, High Point University, 1 University Pkwy, High Point, NC
27262-3598, USA.
Email: jgraeber@highpoint.edu
Race, Racial Negativity, and Competing
Conceptions of American National
John Graeber1 and Mark Setzler1
This study explores differences among African Americans, Latinos, and whites regarding which attributes are most important
to being truly American and how these competing conceptions relate to an individual’s level of racial animus toward African
Americans. Using nationally representative survey data, we first find that Americans of different races vary across six
different components of national identity and do so in ways consistent with theorizing on symbolic racism and inter-group
conflict. Specifically, Americans place more importance on those components shared with indivduals of the same race.
We then analyze how these differing beliefs about national identity influence racial animus. Here, we find robust evidence
that individuals who prioritize the ascriptive, exclusive elements of national identity are more racist, while individuals who
embrace its most inclusive element are less so. Finally, we reveal that the relationship between conceptions of national
identity and racism is moderated substantially by race, and this robust relationship for whites and Latinos is virtually identical.
national identity, race, racism, race and ethnic politics

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