Communications Directions


In some respects, there has been a significant amount of research recommending message directions  on issues of race. However, much of this research is limited in its utility, either because it was designed  to accomplish a narrow goal (and therefore is ineffective or even harmful for broader goals), or  because its focus is so broad it can be difficult to demonstrate effectiveness in advancing specific policy objectives. Most important, even those who have studied and recommended framing directions on these issues for some time are struggling to refine their recommendations and prove they can have an impact in policy debates. Much work still needs to be done.

A consistent question in communications strategies to build support for policies that will address racial disparities is whether to deliver messages that are explicitly “about” race, knowing that some explicit racial messages reduce support for equitable policies. Should advocates focus on race or class, or on race or place?

Highlighting or avoiding race

In a paper prepared for Ohio State University’s Kirwin Institute, “The Dangers of Not Speaking About Race,” Philip Mazzocco (2006) suggests that highlighting race, a color-conscious approach, can be effective in reducing discrimination and lead to support for racial policies. Though this particular research is limited to college students and should be viewed with caution, the general perspective is shared among some social scientists who suggest race consciousness is a necessary precursor to problem solving. (For more on this see Social Science Literature Review: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys by Topos for The Opportunity Agenda, October 2011.)

From a communications perspective, much of the research sponsored by the FrameWorks Institute has cautioned about framing the conversation as being about “race” or “racism.” Strategists often promote messages that avoid race and instead focus on a broader value or connection (e.g., opportunity for all; disparities in place, not race). Using a series of frame experiments, some explicitly referring to race, some not, Gilliam and Manuel (in The Illogic of Literalness: Narrative Lessons in the Presentation of Race Policies, 2009) conclude that communicators should start with core values, not race:

…while it is true that racism as a value did have some positive effects, they were, in the main, about half as effective as exposing people to core American values that did not cite historical discrimination as an explanation for disparities in society. The fact that more generalized treatments were able to elevate support for policies that were specifically targeted to racial and ethnic minorities makes these effects even more compelling. It suggests a kind of disjunctive irony – in order to garner support for race-based policies, advocates need to begin the conversation by invoking broader core American values. Being literal about racism in the public dialogue about race is not the most effective way to build public will for progressive race policy reforms.

While starting the conversation in a different place may have utility, avoiding race completely is unlikely to achieve targeted racial equity policies. For example, based on research designed to develop effective communications for affirmative action, Westen Strategies, in “Neutralizing the  Affirmative Action Debate” (2009), recommends the following as the top-performing message against the opposition message in dial testing. This message avoids a focus on race (instead highlighting gender and age discrimination), denounces discrimination in all its forms, and positions the issue as being about “flexibility to ensure fair treatment” rather than “quotas.” It is easy to see how the following text would score well on a dial test — it is hard to disagree with. But it is unclear whether it builds support for affirmative action more broadly.

In this country, we don’t believe in discriminating against people, regardless of their color, ethnic background, sex, or age, and government shouldn’t tie the hands of employers or colleges with inflexible rules that prevent them from making sure every qualified candidate gets a fair chance. We all know that women don’t get hired or promoted in a lot of companies the same way as men, particularly if they took time off to raise their kids, [and all of us should care about that] whether we’re women, fathers, or husbands. We all know that employers look differently at older workers than younger ones, and we shouldn’t be telling a 55-year-old guy, [“Sorry, there’s no place for you here,”] when he got laid off from a job. And we all know that underfunded rural or urban schools with crumbling walls and 1980s textbooks put kids at a disadvantage, whether they’re black, white, or brown. We need to let business and educational leaders act responsibly and flexibly to make sure everyone is treated fairly, without resorting to quotas or one-size-fits-all programs that don’t do right by anyone.

Avoiding race may be an attractive short-term strategy, but over the long term it may also avoid the central issues and lead to no significant change in public understanding or culture.

Two other promising directions that have received some limited attention are: begin with structures/ systems first and then connect to race; and emphasize positive connections and interdependence among racial groups rather than differences.

Structures/Systems

One promising approach is to highlight a broken or flawed system of which all Americans are part, and then bridge to the dynamics of race. For example, Americans value education, want to improve the education system, and recognize that urban, black communities often have the weakest schools. Problematically, without careful framing, this approach can lead to blaming the individual (thinking that parents are at fault) or toward highlighting another problematic dynamic (such as “class” or “poor people”), rather than focusing on weaknesses in the system.

One tool that has been identified that keeps attention focused on systems and resources rather than individuals is the “Prosperity Grid” simplifying model. The basic idea is to communicate   a

metaphorical grid that underscores the role of resources and institutions in creating opportunity and prosperity. Communities, including the black community, for example, can be characterized as having more or less access to the resources afforded by the Prosperity Grid. Aubrun, Brown, and Grady, in their 2006 work, Moving Beyond Entrenched Thinking About Race: The Homeowner/Stakeholder Effect, note that:

Experts say the most prosperous communities have thriving institutions that provide opportunity, like quality schools, community banks and so on. Think of it as a Prosperity Grid, where everyone, all parts of the community, can plug into and benefit from these institutions of opportunity...

Another approach that keeps attention focused on systems and resources, while advocating the value of opportunity, demonstrates an ability to lift support for policies:

Lately there has been a lot of talk about social conditions in America. Some people believe  that African-American communities still face many barriers to opportunity. They have more declining school budgets, restrictive lending practices, and fewer health professionals. The American Dream has always relied on creating an environment where everyone has an opportunity to achieve — including African Americans. According to this view, we need to devote more attention to ensuring that every community — including African American communities — provides an opportunity to succeed for all its residents. This will result in a better quality of life and future prosperity for the nation as a whole. Please tell us if you have heard this explanation of why we should allocate societal assets to improving conditions in African American communities. (Gilliam & Manuel, 2009)

It should be noted that while Gilliam and the FrameWorks Institute have recommended a number of frames to address issues of race, in their survey research, the message listed above was the only one of several messages tested that lifted policy support while also bridging to a conversation about race. Other messages that didn’t test well in the survey should still be considered promising approaches, but ones that need further development.

Connections and interdependence

A dynamic that hinders broad-based support for change is people’s inability to see their connections to others. Sixty percent of white respondents reject the idea that what happens generally to black men in this country will have something to do with what happens in their own life. (Washington Post/ Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University, 2006) Cueing zero-sum thinking increases the sense that members of other racial groups are competitive threats and is likely to undermine support for policies to address disparities. In “Perceptions of Racial Group Competition,” Bobo and Hutchings (1996) wrote:

Perceptions of competitive group threat thus involve genuinely social-psychological processes that are not reducible to a single cause nor to purely individual-level psychological dynamics… We find that perceptions of competition and threat from other racial groups can be reliably measured. Such perceptions, while not acute in our data, are fairly common. Substantial percentages (though typically less than 50 percent), of Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians perceive members of other groups as zero-sum competitive threats for social resources… Perceptions of group competition tend to be based on a mix of racial alienation, prejudice, stratification beliefs, and self-interest. (Bobo & Hutchings, 1996)

Instead, can communications create a sense of shared fate, a sense that what happens to one segment of society affects all of society? Individualistic thinking leads to competition between the races:

However, rather than decreasing perceptions of threat, individualistic thinking tends to encourage Whites to view Asian Americans and Latinos as competitive threats, to encourage Asians to view Latinos as competitive threats, and to encourage Blacks and Latinos to view Asians as competitive threats. (Ibid.)

So can creating a sense of interdependence alleviate competition between the races? Survey experiments with affirmative action policy suggest that redefining the issue as one that affects society more broadly helps build support even for subgroups.

For example, with no priming, 63 percent support affirmative action programs for women and just 50 percent support affirmative action programs for racial minorities. When primed with a question about affirmative action for women first, support for affirmative action for minorities increased by 7 points. This occurs because people respond based on criteria for the first question they hear, then end up using the same lens to judge the subsequent question:

The theoretical explanation for this shift in views is what Schuman and Presser (1981, p. 28; also see Moore 2002, pp. 82–3, for an operational definition) term “consistency” effects. When asked first about either type of AA [affirmative action] program before being asked about the other type (what Moore termed a “non-comparative context”), people make their evaluations based on whatever criteria they bring to mind. But when asked about the second type of AA program after having been asked about the first type (a “comparative context”), many people will make their evaluation of the second type of AA program in comparison with their evaluation of the first. Thus, many respondents who first said they support AA programs for women then feel obligated (when asked the second question) to express support for AA programs targeted to racial minorities. Similarly, people who first said they oppose AA for racial minorities are then less inclined to turn around and support it for women (when the latter question is asked second). The comparative context thus elicits a “norm of reciprocity” (Schuman and Presser 1981, p. 28) leading to more consistent expressions of support for each type of AA program than are found in the noncomparative context. (Wilson, 2010)

Some suggest that people view gender inequality through a lens of shared interest (we are all affected by gender inequality), while racial inequality is not typically viewed through an interdependent lens (Winter, 2008), so perhaps the prime puts people in an interdependent mindset rather than a competitive mindset.

In addition, qualitative testing of an interconnectedness approach shows promise in helping people see that addressing racial disparities benefits all of society. In quantitative research that followed the qualitative study, however, analysis demonstrated that the following prime had effects on support for child and youth development policy, but not other policies:

Lately there has been a lot of talk about how we are all connected in our country. Some people believe that we will only succeed when all parts of the nation are in good shape. Problems of poor health and education that happen in one part of the nation end up affecting us all. For this reason, moving ahead as a country requires promoting programs and improving services everywhere so that we all benefit from our interconnection. According to this view, all communities must be able to realize their potential and contribute to the country. Have you heard this explanation of why we should allocate societal assets to recognize the connections among communities? (Gilliam & Manuel, 2009)

Note also that this prime included no racial cues, so it is unclear how it would perform in the context of a conversation about racial disparities. Interconnectedness is core to the progressive narrative and will be an important element of conversations on race. However, it is a direction that needs more development and testing before communicators can use it with confidence.

Communicators should be cautious about how they deploy a connectedness message. Sometimes strategists recommend messages that cue negative connections using fear, failure, or prevention (e.g., educate now or pay for prison later). Using racial problems as a threat to meet our short-term policy goals is likely to exacerbate the long-term problems in perception. Note the following examples from a series of framing experiments. The general prevention prime was effective in lifting policy support, but when it was translated to a prevention prime emphasizing race (with negative connections) it lost effectiveness:

Lately there has been a lot of talk about prevention in our country. Some people believe that we should prevent health and education problems before they occur. When we don’t address them, they eventually become worse and cost more to fix. For this reason, it is important to promote programs and improve services that keep problems from occurring in the first place. According to this view, we can save lives and money if we make good prevention programs easier for everyone to access. Have you heard this explanation of why we should allocate societal assets to prevention?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about social conditions in America. Some people believe   that preventing problems in African American communities is important because they will eventually become everyone’s problems. Preventing declining school budgets, restrictive lending practices, and a scarcity of health professionals in African American communities will prevent worse problems in the future. According to this view, we can prevent further damage to our nation by devoting more resources to addressing these problems in African American communities before they become more serious. Please tell us if you have heard this explanation of why we should allocate societal assets to preventing problems affecting African American communities. (Gilliam & Manuel,  2009)

Solutions orientation

Finally, a “best practice” that is often overlooked by communicators is the importance of highlighting solutions. Advocates can easily assume that if people just know how terrible a problem is, how much of a crisis is on the horizon, they will rise up to fix it. Instead, people can easily become paralyzed with inaction because they become overwhelmed by seemingly intractable problems. They cannot imagine what the solutions could be. Lynn Davey offered this idea in her 2009 FrameWorks Institute message brief, “Strategies for Framing Racial Disparities”:

One of the common mistakes made by advocates in all fields is the tendency to bury solutions messages deep in their communications material, while routinely according inordinate  attention to defining the problem. … When people are presented with effective solutions, they are able to more clearly understand where the system breaks down and how we might fix it.

Reorienting communications around solutions, rather than problems, will go a long way toward building support for public policies.