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When Race Matters and When It Doesn’t: Racial Group Differences in Response to Racial Cues

by Ismail K. White. Reading for Tuesday, 19 June 2007.

Building on previous research on the effects of racial priming on the opinions of White Americans, this paper engages the question of how exposure to racial cues in political messages shapes the opinions of African Americans. I argue that explanations of racial priming that focus exclusively on White Americans are insufficient to explain how racial cues influence the opinions of Black Americans, as they fail to account for the activation of in-group attitudes and mis specify the role of explicit racial cues. In two separate laboratory experiments, I test the effects of explicitly racial, implicitly racial, and nonracial verbal cues on both Black and White Americans’ assessments of an ostensibly nonracial issue.  The results point to important racial differences in the effectiveness of explicit and implicit racial verbal cues in activating racial thinking about an issue. Only frames that provide oblique references to race successfully activated racial out-group resentment for Whites. Among Blacks, explicit references to race most reliably elicited racial thinking by activating racial in-group identification, whereas the effect of implicit cues was moderated by the activation of negative representations of the in group. These findings not only demonstrate that racial attitude activation works differently for African Americans than for Whites but also challenge conventional wisdom that African Americans see all political issues through a racial lens.

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