Political scientist Nazita Lajevardi breaks down racist messaging in politics

While white audiences may readily condemn racist statements made by white political candidates, they may regard derogatory remarks from Black and Muslim candidates as “honest criticism,” according to a study by Tabitha Bonilla, Alexandra Filindra and Nazita Lajevardi.

Lajevardi, who is a political scientist, attorney and Michigan State University professor, discussed the study’s findings at a Friday webinar hosted by the American Politics Workshop. She explained that, through the study, she and her coworkers hoped to better understand how racist rhetoric affected a politician’s approval based on their race and the racial makeup of their voters.

The study used various sample groups to examine how Black voters responded to white, Black and Muslim political candidates making anti-Black or Islamophobic remarks, comparing these findings to the reactions of white voters. Lajevardi and her team hypothesized that Black audiences would be more likely than white audiences to condemn “in-group” derogation, or racist remarks made toward a Black or Muslim candidate’s own race.

“Whites might actually defer to somebody who is making a derogatory statement about their in-group because they might view them as an expert on the group,” Lajevardi said. “On the flip side, for African American audiences, we expected that their own experiences with prejudice are going to make them more likely to notice racial derogation by candidates, even when those candidates are targeting other groups.”

The study’s findings were consistent with Lajevardi’s expectations: white respondents rated racist white candidates lower than their non-racist counterparts, but there was no significant difference between their rating of neutral versus derogatory Black and Muslim candidates. Meanwhile, Black respondents expressed less approval of candidates who derogated marginalized groups, regardless of their race.

“Black respondents are actually assessing a penalty for in-group derogation when both Blacks and Muslims are the targeted group,” Lajevardi said. “That suggests that Black respondents are not simply penalizing insults against their own group but sanctioning stigmatization of other groups, too.”

Lajevardi noted that, with the rise of anti-Black and anti-Asian political rhetoric following Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, these results will be crucial to understanding racist appeals to voters.

“As racial messaging continues to be at the forefront of our national discourse, it’s really likely that these racial differences will continue to emerge,” Lajevardi said. “Candidates for elected office are continuing to rely more explicitly on racially derogatory messaging to communicate to their voters, so understanding who is likely to punish that kind of speech is becoming even more paramount.”

*Artical thumbnail courtesy of the Department of Political Science