Racial Moderation as Preference or Constraint? Examining Racial Pragmatism Among Black Americans

Thumbnail Image


Bishop_umd_0117E_23904.pdf (5.18 MB)
No. of downloads:

Publication or External Link





In this dissertation, I offer a theory of racial pragmatism to explain how the broader social context influences the social and political behavior of Black Americans. I define racial pragmatism as a Black belief system where through double consciousness (DuBois 1903) and their use of the pragmatic method (Dewey 1929), adherents are aware of Americans’ opposition to Black voters’ desired social changes. This reality has led pragmatic Black Americans to conclude that as a group, Black Americans are hampered in their ability to articulate and enact a progressive and racialized political agenda that uniquely benefits members of their racial group. Behaving similarly to pragmatic Black elites such as David Dinkins and Barack Obama (Harris 2012; Marable and Clark 2009; Reft 2009), when striving for social progress, I argue that pragmatic Black voters are hesitant to embrace race conscious political strategies, policies, and candidates, not because they oppose them outright, but rather they view these race-conscious options as ineffective in the current social environment. To evaluate my theory, I created an 8-item survey measure of racial pragmatism. I find that racial pragmatism is a statistically reliable measure and I found repeated support for my theory through a series of observational and experimental studies. As racial pragmatism increases, Black Americans are less likely to vote for racially progressive Democrats, offer more moderate positions on racial policies such as reparations, and envision greater political backlash from white Americans when politicians speak out about racial issues that affect Black people. I also find that pragmatists are more reactive to threat when compared to co-racial group members who scored lower in racial pragmatism. As racial pragmatism increases, Black Americans are more likely to compromise and abandon their liberal policy positions when responding to threat stimuli. Finally, I also found that my theory and measure of racial pragmatism has important social implications outside of politics. As racial pragmatism increases, Black Americans are more likely to both support and engage in strategic deracialization efforts such as codeswitching to mute their racial identities and increase their chances of fair treatment in American society. This research provides insight into the complex actions that Black Americans employ in their daily lives to compensate for prejudice and strategically develop tactics for achieving uplift in a country that is hostile to their interests and rights. Through racial pragmatism, some Black Americans make strategic and deliberate choices to deemphasize their racial identities and relegate racial issues in politics to decrease their chances of experiencing prejudice and backlash from non-Black Americans.