Limited-Government Values and the Subtlety of “New Racism”

By considering white Americans’ limited-government values, policy attitudes, and levels of racial prejudice, this research explores how policy opinions can subtly mask underlying racism.

Reviewed by Becky Mer


This study responds to the public debate on why some white people oppose large-scale government programs. Several researchers argue that “old racism” may influence some white Americans’ policy attitudes. This theory holds that some white people oppose race-conscious policy, or any policy explicitly intended to benefit Black people because they perceive Black people to be biologically inferior. Examples of these race-conscious policies include affirmative action and government spending on aid for Black communities. In contrast to these perceptions, other researchers argue that “old racism” may have diminished over time, revealing a more subtle, yet still present, form of “new racism.” Proponents of this theory argue that, rather than opposing race-conscious policy on the grounds of overt racism, some white people object to such policies on the basis of promoting traditional American values, such as individualism and self-reliance. 

Dr. Jason Gainous suggests there is another more subtle objection to race-conscious policy which, unlike individualism, does not rely on descriptions of people or their personal characteristics. This theory, termed  “new racism” focuses on limited-government values, or opposition to big government, as a cover for some white people’s opposition to race-conscious policy. In this study, the author examines whether the effect of limited-government values in guiding white people’s attitudes about race-conscious policy is conditional on white people’s levels of racial prejudice. His findings suggest that this conditional effect does indeed exist. 

Dr. Gainous is a Professor and Department Chair at the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. His areas of expertise include research methods, political psychology, public opinion, and political behavior. Dr. Gainous is the co-author of two books, including, “Rebooting American Politics: The Internet Revolution” (2011). He has also authored and co-authored more than 35 journal articles, five book chapters, and numerous other academic publications.

Methods and Findings

To assess if the effect of limited-government values in determining white people’s perceptions regarding race-conscious policy is conditional on racial prejudice, Dr. Gainous used survey data from the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES). The unit of analysis was the individual, and there were 1,667 white respondents in the sample, although several questions were not asked to the full cohort. Each of the study models includes a series of control variables, including feelings toward the beneficiaries of government aid programs. 

Before performing the main multivariate test, Dr. Gainous contextualized his test by first assessing differences in limited-government values and racial prejudice across a series of demographic variables, such as gender, age, income, education, and political party identification. This initial assessment resulted in several findings: 

1. Regarding both limited-government values and racial prejudice measurements, respondents identifying as either Republicans or males have significantly higher results than their respective counterparts. This implies that if there is, in fact, subtle racism in how limited-government values are applied to race-conscious policy attitudes.

2. White respondents at or above the median income tend to have stronger limited-government values but show no signs of heightened racial prejudice. Similarly, those above the mean age tend to have stronger limited-government values but do not show elevated signs of racial prejudice.

Dr. Gainous’ multivariate test directly assesses whether the effect of limited-government values on race-conscious policy opinions is conditional on levels of racial prejudice. The interactive results of this assessment confirm this relationship and provide persuasive evidence in support of the author’s “new racism” theory. However, the findings suggest that the effect of limited-government values on white people’s attitudes about racially ambiguous social welfare policy is not conditional on racial prejudice. Such policies seek to alleviate social and economic disadvantages generally rather than on the basis of race. This suggests that the way in which limited-government values are conditionally applied depends on the policy beneficiaries being explicitly Black.


“New racism” may operate with greater subtlety than previously understood. This study suggests that by relying on limited-government values, some white Americans have found a way to make racially based objections to race-conscious policy without expressing overt racism. This implies that white people’s policy opinions mask underlying racism in even subtler ways than claims of “by-your-bootstraps” individualism. 

The findings of this study indicate that white Americans are not absent of principle, values, and beliefs when developing an opinion pertaining to race-conscious policy. In fact, values may not be the only factor in such attitudes. Racial prejudice plays a key role and appears to work together with values.

It is important to note that the author is not contending that limited-government values are not a meaningful source of policy opinions and attitudes. Rather, the author claims it is possible that, for some white Americans, the way in which limited government values are applied to race-conscious policy attitudes may be rooted in racial prejudice.


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