This study employs nationally representative panel surveys to assess the role of optimism and pessimism in shaping the political beliefs and behavior of Americans. How do demographic factors such as race and ethnic background, social status, gender, and religious identity, as well as the intersections between such salient characteristics, impact people?s outlook on life and their political engagement? Because the panel surveys, conducted in 2012, are designed to oversample underrepresented groups, the study also is able to assess the degree to which e.g., increased Black political representation and the recent economic downturn has affected Black women?s political attitudes and political participation compared to other groups.

We have scant information regarding the ways in which expectations, beliefs, political engagement, and personal goals differ by demographic group. Especially the political attitudes and behaviors among contemporary Black women remain understudied. This is surprising, given that the life experiences of African Americans, and Black women in particular, are in some ways unique. For instance, Black women have experienced, acutely, the impact of the recent economic downturn, unemployment, and the housing crisis, in addition to dealing with persistent stereotypes. Moreover, compared to women in other ethnic/racial groups, Black women are less likely to be married, and single Black women experience the highest poverty rates of any group. It remains unclear, however, whether such statistics are predictive of people's political attitudes and engagement, or their goals for the future. Drawing on insights from social psychological literature, we hypothesize that there is only a weak link between people's socio-demographic characteristics and their outlook on life and politics. Specifically, we hypothesize that, for Black women, perceptions that the socio-political climate is improving may negate grim social and economic prospects.

Broader Impacts This panel study complements otherwise well-funded surveys such as the General Social Survey and the American National Election Study, which typically do not have sufficient sample size, nor depth in questions posed, to permit a thorough comparison of political attitudes and behaviors between ethnic, socioeconomic, or other subgroups. Findings from this research may be of interest to policy makers as well as scholars. Findings may also challenge persistent stereotypes and inform public discourse about the role Black women, among other minority groups, play in American political life.

Project Report

To what extent does gender define all women’s political and social viewpoints? It is important to understand whether women in the U.S. are united by gender or divided by pluralist politics or cultural politics that are gendered and racialized. Our 2012 Internet panel survey, that is representative of the U.S. adult population and includes an oversample of Blacks, provides a statistical portrait of U.S. women. This study considers the ways in which social class, race-ethnicity, marital status, single parenthood, feminism, religiosity, political orientation, and cultural beliefs or stereotypes influence women’s public policy beliefs, social beliefs, and political participation. We find that political orientation, class and racial-ethnic differences are evident. While our interests span many substantive areas of inquiry, we provide a few examples of our findings below. First, with regard to public policy, our results show that women’s attitudes about race-neutral social programs that assist women, children, and families are influenced by non-Black women’s stereotypical beliefs about African-American women. We find that a belief in certain negative stereotypes about Black women reduces public support for social assistance programs. Second, we wanted to know whether or not social institutions similarly influence black and white women’s political participation today. What is the role of the church and civic organizations in prompting women’s participation? In what ways do Black and White women differ regarding levels of political interest and feelings of political efficacy? We asked our respondents a number of questions about their civic and political involvement. Our findings show that Black women are significantly more engaged in political participation than are White women. They are twice as likely to attend a protest meeting or demonstration, and three times more likely to have taken part in a neighborhood march. However, White and Black women who are not active in their churches have equally low levels of civic engagement with 46 percent of both groups not engaging in any kind of political participation. We also find that belonging to a Black organization such as the NAACP and attendance at a politically oriented church has an effect that is over and above doing either independently. This means that there is something unique about being a member of a more political church and a Black-focused organization that drives political participation for Black women. Third, we explore what matters most in predicting women’s feelings towards gays and lesbians? For Black and White women, having a gay friend is a significant positive predictor of warmth towards gays and lesbians. It is the strongest predictor of warmth for Black women. For white women, education is the strongest significant predictor of feelings of warmth towards gays and lesbians; and, the lack of a high school diploma is the strongest and most significant predictor of their social distance from lesbians and gays. White women that feel the least warmth towards lesbians and gay men are those who are Republican with less than a high school education; while those that are better educated, attend church yearly (as opposed to frequently), and have a gay friend feel the greatest warmth towards those groups. Also, White women that self-identify as a feminist feel greater warmth towards lesbians. African-American women with higher incomes, some college, a gay friend, and who attend church yearly, feel the most warmth towards lesbians and gay men. Finally, we are concerned about women’s attitudes towards inter-racial relationships which serve as a symbol of the breakdown of racial-ethnic boundaries and prejudice. We asked our respondents to tell us the degree to which they find Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Latina/os attractive; and, the extent to which they would have concerns about family/friend approval and bi-racial-ethnic children. We also asked whether or not they would outdate for sexual reasons only as one indicator of the extent to which women are open to a more serious relationship with a man of a different race-ethnicity than their own. Our findings show that as compared to Black women, White women are significantly more likely to have concerns that family and friends would disapprove of their relationship with Latino and Asian men; and, to have concerns about having bi-racial-ethnic children with those groups. Political orientation also matters with White female Democrats significantly less likely than those with other political affiliations to have concerns about family/friend disapproval of Black dates, and to have concerns about having bi-racial children with a Black mate. Political orientation also predicts Black women’s openness to dating Whites. Black Democrat women are significantly less likely than women of other political orientations to have concerns about having bi-racial children with Whites, or to want to date Whites for sexual reasons only. Thus, in different ways, the personal appears to be political for Black and for White women.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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University of California Irvine
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