127 Corwin Hall

Abstract: Researchers have long sought to provide both a theoretical and empirical account of why many white Americans support racial equality in principle but often stop short of supporting policies that would ostensibly make racial equality a reality—a phenomenon known as the “principle-policy gap.” Many existing theories are rooted in social psychology and rely upon attitudinal survey measures to predict white Americans’ opposition to racially egalitarian initiatives. Although recent research suggests that whites’ racial attitudes—particularly those of white liberals—have become much more progressive on a host of racial issues, whether these political attitudes reflect a change in political behavior is less clear. Accordingly, I ask under what conditions do white Americans engage in antiracist behavior? To answer this question, I offer a materialist theory of white liberal antiracism, the privatization of racial responsibility, to show how white liberals’ principled and material interests regarding racial equality are often in conflict, with the latter taking precedence. To assess this empirically, I conduct a survey experiment that examines this phenomenon within the context of public schools. The results lend evidence to my theory that white liberals will engage in antiracist behavior conditional on the amount of sacrifice required of the act or policy in question, even when they express racially liberal attitudes. This framework provides a materialist account of the principle-policy gap among white liberals and the conditions we might expect it to close while underscoring the limitations of individual-level solutions to structural racial inequality.

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