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Are Smart People Less Racist? Verbal Ability, Anti-Black Prejudice, and the Principle-Policy Paradox

Geoffrey T. Wodtke
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spv028 spv028 First published online: 8 January 2016


It is commonly hypothesized that higher cognitive abilities promote racial tolerance and a greater commitment to racial equality, but an alternative theoretical framework contends that higher cognitive abilities merely enable members of a dominant racial group to articulate a more refined legitimizing ideology for racial inequality. According to this perspective, ideological refinement occurs in response to shifting patterns of racial conflict and is characterized by rejection of overt prejudice, superficial support for racial equality in principle, and opposition to policies that challenge the dominant group’s status. This study estimates the impact of verbal ability on a comprehensive set of racial attitudes, including anti-black prejudice, views about black-white equality in principle, and racial policy support. It also investigates cohort differences in the effects of verbal ability on these attitudes. Results suggest that high-ability whites are less likely than low-ability whites to report prejudicial attitudes and more likely to support racial equality in principle. Despite these liberalizing effects, high-ability whites are no more likely to support a variety of remedial policies for racial inequality. Results also suggest that the ostensibly liberalizing effects of verbal ability on anti-black prejudice and views about racial equality in principle emerged slowly over time, consistent with ideological refinement theory.

  • racial attitudes
  • prejudice
  • affirmative action
  • group conflict
  • verbal ability
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