Construction Of Common Sense Around The Politics Of Race In The USA

Barry Gilheany discusses race in the USA.

In this article I construct a case study of shifts in racial politics in the to illustrate the smorgasbord of influences brought to bear on the citizen when engaging in the political process either through voting, reflecting on or expressing an opinion. In it I discuss how citizens acquire information and at the effects of elite discourse on public opinion. I analyse the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS Model constructed by a leading academic authority on public opinion to explain how citizens process political information. I then applies these theories to the changing dynamics of racial politics in the USA using the concepts of racial formation and hegemony as an explanatory tool. 

To begin with, it needs to be stated that every opinion constitutes a merger of information and predisposition: information to form a mental image of the particular issue, and predisposition to influence a conclusion about it (Zaller,6). Citizens in large societies depend for their information about the wider world in which they live on unseen and, invariably, unknown “others”. These others belong to political elites. Political elites include elected politicians, higher level government officials, opinion formers such as journalists, academic experts and policy analysts and some activists. When elites promulgate clear ideas of what needs to be done on a given issue, the public tends to view this issue within this prism, with the most politically attentive members of the public most likely to follow the elite position. When elites divide, members of the public tend to adhere to the elites sharing their general ideological or partisan predisposition, with the most politically aware members of the public reflecting most closely the ideological divisions among the elite (Zaller,6-8).

Elite discourse thus transmits political information in particular ways to depict reality sufficiently vividly so that the lay person can grasp it. The information is selective and located in stereotypical frames of reference. Even topics that lie within the lived experience of some citizens, such as poverty, homosexuality and racial inequality are subject to widely different interpretations, depending on the framing of facts concerning them (Zaller,13). The receptiveness of the citizenry to elite discourse hinges on their levels of political awareness.

In Zaller’s terms, political awareness refers to the extent to which an individual pays attention to politics and understands what he or she has encountered. However, two caveats need to be issued about political awareness: (1) people vary greatly in their general attentiveness to politics, regardless of particular issues; and (2) average overall levels of information are quite low. For example, he has found that the people most strongly committed to women’s right to abortion were more likely to find out about the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Webster v. Reproductive Services in 1989. Yet he also established that their informational advantage was fairly modest (Zaller,18).

Political awareness represents intellectual or cognitive engagement with public affairs as opposed to emotional engagement or no engagement at all. The key to political awareness is, therefore, the absorption of political communications. However, the receptivity of citizens to persuasive influences will vary with the interests, values and experiences that they can bring to bear; in other words, political predispositions – the stable, individual-level traits that modulate the acceptance or rejection of the political communications they receive. Predispositions are thus the crucial intervening variable between the messages one receives from the mass media and one’s statements of political preferences (Zaller, 23). For example, the well-established ignorance of many Americans of foreign affairs explains why individuals need to fall back on core values to inform policy preferences on issues such as the U.S. policy of aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Shifts in elite discourse and consequent political awareness have had a profound debate on debates around race in the USA. At the turn of the century, the USA was a deeply racist society – not only in the Jim Crowe caste structure of the southern states and in the widespread discrimination practice but also of the political ideas informed by biological and psychological theories of the inferiority of blacks to whites. Elite attitudes on race began to change from 1930 as in that year, President Hoover’s nomination of John Parker of North Carolina to the Supreme Court was rejected largely because of a racist speech he had made ten years previously. Despite the apparent lack of impact on race on political discussion in the 1930s and the almost negligible improvements in the material conditions of blacks in the antebellum era in the US, Gunnar Myrdal in his magisterial study of race relations in 1944 felt able to predict that a period of racial progress lay just ahead. He based this optimism on purely intellectual developments; scientists were now eschewing their earlier theories of racial inferiority and psychologists were now examining the stigmatising effects on blacks of racial prejudice and the origins of this prejudice in types of psychiatric disorder and educational deficiencies (Zaller,9-10).

As a result, the stereotypes used to explain racial differences were replaced after 1930 by the failure of individual effort or, in the liberal variant, of the effects discrimination against blacks. This new elite discourse on race led to a massive shift towards greater public support for the principle of racial equality (for example only 45% of whites in a 1944 survey said that blacks should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job; a figure which rose to 97% in 1972). Furthermore, the people most heavily exposed to the new elite discourse on race, have been the most likely to support those ideas that constitute the modern elite consensus on race (Zaller,11).

Most significantly of all, the public became more responsive to partisan elite signals on race. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, there was little division between elite Democrats and elite Republicans on the subjects and Republican representatives in Congress tended to be more liberal than their Democratic counterparts. From late 1963, the Democrats overcame the opposition of their racially conservative wing to become the party of racial liberalism as exemplified by President Johnson’s four successful civil rights bills. By contrast, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 became the most prominent opponent of this legislation and henceforth, congressional voting on racial issues began to parallel Democratic-Republican party lines (Zaller,12).

An analysis of public opinion requires an understanding of two phenomena: how citizens learn about matters for the most part beyond their immediate experience and how the information acquired is then converted into opinions. To enable such an understanding, Zaller constructs the RAS model. The model consists of four assertions, or axioms, about how individuals respond to political information they may encounter (Zaller,42).

A1 or the Reception Axiom states that the greater a person’s level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely they are to receive political messages concerning that issue. It also asserts that political awareness is operationally measured by a person’s summary score across a series of neutral, factual tests of public affairs knowledge.

A2 or the Resistance Axiom states that people tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political dispositions but only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship and their predispositions. While this reasoning seems to posit a strong case for an association between political awareness and resistance to persuasion, the more simple and direct the link between a predisposition and an issue e.g. race or taxing social security benefits, the less important awareness is likely to be in regulating response to political communications on that issue.

A3 or the Accessibility Axiom holds that the more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to retrieve that consideration from memory for use. This axiom appropriates one of the best-established empirical realities in cognitive psychology.

A4 or the Responsive Axiom holds that individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately relevant or meaningful to them. People thus answer the question on the basis at whatever considerations are accessible “at the top of the head” (Zaller,42-49).

The dominant element in the RAS model is that concerning the time taken to retrieve consideration from memory for use. Arguably what gives the model its strength is its ability to forecast that different cohorts of the public will change their attitudes in different amounts and even different directions, depending on their political values, and the particular changes in information flow that occur (Zaller,52).

To help in an understanding of the RAS model to US racial politics, it is necessary to consider Omi and Winant’s concept of racial formation. Arguing that race is never a mere matter of skin colour, they challenge the binary differences in definition as an essence (a fixed category) and mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which an ideal non-racist social order would abolish (Omi & Winant, 54) They define race as a concept which signifies and symbolises social conflicts and interest by referring to different types of human bodies. There is no biological basis for distinguishing among groups along the lines of race.

Racial formation is the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed. It is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organised. Racial formation is linked to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organised and ruled. Race is thus a matter of both social structure and cultural representation from a racial formation perspective (Omi & Winant, 56-76).

Thus, racial formation enables an understanding of how race becomes intertwined with class and gender; how daily experiences are formed and how a “common sense” and a hegemonic consensus is created on race which is then framed for public consumption through elite discourses.

It is the Gramscian concept of hegemony that links racial formation to the body of public opinion work by Zaller discussed previously. Hegemony constitutes the conditions necessary for the establishment and consolidation of rule. Rule cannot be obtained in modern societies without the element of consent which extends to the incorporation by the dominant group of the key interests of subordinated groups. In order to consolidate their hegemony, the elite groups must generate popular practices and ideas – a “common sense”- and propagate them through mass media channels, education, folk wisdom, religion etc. which are then consented to by the rest of society. (Omi & Winant,67). The 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed successive sea-changes in the “common sense” around the politics of race in the USA and the incorporation of racial groups formally legally excluded from many realms of society through the hegemonic process that Gramsci describes. These processes have gained public acceptance though the production of elite discourse and the susceptibility of key demographic groups to it.

To conclude, I hope to have shown how the key role that opinion makers or elites play in the establishment of the consensus informs the political decision making and participation levels of citizens in the USA. I have also argued that methodologies for the study of public opinion must be controlled for predispositional factors. I have highlighted the utility of applied public opinion models to the changing terms of debates and discursive formations around race in the USA. Although the focus of the article has been on the USA, I would argue that this model of hegemonic discourse (or “manufacturing consent” as Chomsky would more sceptically term it) is applicable to any political contestation around race and identity be the elite generated benign shifts in discourse discussed in the article or be if or the malign, populist folk-devils around “otherness” (black male sexuality and criminality, black single mother “welfare queens, Jewish money and power, the “rootless” cosmopolitan and disorderly Roma/Gypsy/Traveller communities) which created by elite opinion-makers and then transmitted through prejudices in popular media and culture.


Omi, Michael & Winant, Howard Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. Second Edition New York: Routledge, 1994.

Zaller, John The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.


  1. Barry,
    you're a fine writer but most of us in the US are absolutely sick and tired of talking about race. "Racism, race, so called white privilege or whatever other utter nonsense the left is obsessed with these days. We had a two term black President, lets stop pretending America is still stuck in 1955 and let us move forward. I mean the left just cannot let it go, they have to constantly dig up the past to show how evil, awful the US is.

  2. Ryan

    Thanks for your comment.

    First of all, I was not arguing that the US is still stuck in 1955. The article was not meant to be a polemic against the US but an analysis of the discursive construction of and how common sense/consensus around race and racial formation in the US shifts over time.

    Having said that, the issues that have given rise to the Black Lives Matters movement around police shootings of young African Americans and the high incarceration rates for African Americans show that, despite formal civil rights equality having been granted, there is still a large degree of institutionalised or structural racism in the US - the legacy of its original sins around slavery and race.

    The election of Trump as President has helped to legitimise racist sentiment and hate speech which two terms of Obama (Remember Trump's "birther" jibes) only concealed but did not remove. African Americans still get disenfranchised from electoral rolls in Southern states as convicted felons and other dubious tests.

    Some white people may be sick of hearing about race and PC culture around it; may I respectfully suggest that it is not their lives who are impacted by the modern mutations of racism and racial discourse.

  3. Some white people may be sick of hearing about race and PC culture around it; may I respectfully suggest that it is not their lives who are impacted by the modern mutations of racism and racial discourse.

    So white people's lives in the west can't be impacted by racism...In a word 'bollick's'. Racism is world wide and affects all races. There is lots of black on black racism and taliban on taliban and white on white racism all over this rock..

    Let's talk black lives matter (all lives matter). Here are the founders Julius Jones and Daunasia Yancey speaking to CNN's Don Lemon explaining how Bill Clinton is directly responsible for the increase of the black prison population.

    The Donald reminding the world about what Bill said about Obama. Now Bill thinks he was the first black President of the USA. While Hillary Clinton in 1996 thought they were superpredators and today thinks all black people look the same