Research Questions

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What is the nature of contemporary American racial attitudes?

Lee, Karen H. "American Racial Frames: A Relational Approach to Racial Attitudes and Change" Under Review

My dissertation investigates systems of racial beliefs, their sociopolitical implications, and change across time. Drawing on twenty years of American National Election Studies (ANES) data, I use latent class analysis to investigate systematic heterogeneity in patterns of racial attitudes across multiple attitudinal dimensions to identify subgroups characterized by distinctive constellations of racial belief. This research contributes to the existing literature in three main ways. First, I identify five, generalizable subpopulations who share similar understandings of race and racial inequality in the United States. These classes are invariant in their attitudinal composition across time and class membership is systematically associated with sociodemographic profiles, sociopolitical opinions, and political engagement. Two, results build on and challenge dominant theories of racial attitudes with empirical evidence that corroborates the national salience of colorblind racial ideology but also question prevailing assumptions of its cultural hegemony. More broadly, my findings emphasize the theoretical and empirical importance of considering the multiple, competing racial frames organizing American racial beliefs. Three, I show that over the last decade, the proportion of racially moderate or colorblind Americans has declined while the proportion of Americans classified into a frame that foregrounds structural inequality and racism has increased four-fold. While linear trends tell a unidimensional story of declining prejudice, I show that in 2020, nearly half of all Americans were classified into most polarized racial frames with fundamentally opposite views on the nature of modern racial disadvantage. My evidence indicates that the United States has entered a new era of racial consciousness, but there remain substantial and potentially widening divides amongst the most politically engaged Americans on who is racially disadvantaged and why.

What can people's sociopolitical beliefs tell us about racial divisions and inequality?

Lee, Karen H. Carmen Guitterez, Becky Pettit. "Racial Polarization in Attitudes towards Criminal Justice" Revise & Resubmit at Social Problems

This paper draws on over three decades of nationally representative survey data from the General Social Survey to investigate racial differences in American views on questions related to crime and punishment. In recent years, there has been an increase in the proportion of Black Americans that support spending on halting the “rising” crime rate but oppose harsher courts and oppose the death penalty, and an increase in White Americans that support spending on halting the “rising” crime rate, support harsher courts, and support the death penalty. We show that question responses are patterned in ways that vary significantly by race and are associated with a range of sociopolitical attitudes and sociodemographic characteristics. Over-time analyses indicate that racial differences in perceptions about the criminal justice system have widened over the past few years, rather than contracted, as analyses of some single item measures has shown. These findings draw attention to the centrality of race in conceptualizations of concerns about crime and beliefs about the fairness and function of the criminal legal system. They also highlight crime and justice as a central feature of racial inequality in the contemporary United States.

How does the way that we measure race and ethnicity shape our understanding of inequality?

Lee, Karen H., Yasmiyn Irizarry, Ruth E. Zambrana, and Nancy López. "Ethnoracial Categories and the Measurement of Inequality:
The Case of U.S. Latinx/Hispanic" Under Review

Scientists often rely on state categories to assess patterns of inequality yet rarely question whether these official categories align with social categorization in everyday life. Drawing on American Community survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, we show that the uncritical use of state categories of race and ethnicity can fundamentally skew our understanding of inequality. Using the example of Latinos, we employ a multidimensional approach that leverages race, ethnicity, and ancestry measures to investigate labor market and educational outcomes. Conventional analysis show that Black and Asian Latinos have higher college graduation rates and average income than White Latinos. However, White Latinos who report ancestries with high European descendancy have consistently superior outcomes than White Latinos who report ancestries more likely to have darker skin and indigenous features, even after accounting for key sociodemographic controls. This unique analytic approach rendered a distinct account of inequality: White Latinos (with high European descendancy) have far better outcomes than Black Latinos and in some cases, Asian Latinos as well. This work has implications for studies and policies related to U.S. Latinos but also has broad relevance to any research invested in the measurement and study of social difference and inequality.

What are the factors shaping contemporary White opposition to Black political action?

Lee, Karen H. "Contemporary White Opposition to Black Political Action." Under Review

The Black Lives Matter is potentially the largest social movement in US history and the most significant political mobilization around racial issues in recent decades. Yet there remains limited systematic evidence on the factors shaping public opinion towards the modern racial justice movement. Using nationally representative data from the 2016 American National Election Studies Survey, this study investigates competing explanations of White opposition to the Black Lives Matter Movement, while controlling for a range of sociodemographic covariates. Contrary to some claims that contemporary opposition is fueled by race-neutral factors such as a general orientation towards protest activity, support for the police, conservative values, or a moral equalitarian concern for all lives, I find that racial views are the dominant predictors of opposition to the movement among White Americans. Though racial resentment is the strongest predictor of feelings towards Black Lives Matter, explicitly prejudiced attitudes and nationalism are also highly significant predictors of opposition to the movement. Together these insights bring contemporary White opposition to Black political action into sharper focus and serve as a window into modern race relations and conflict.