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ISSN 1542-6300
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George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Bob Davis,
 North Carolina
 Agricultural and
 Technical State

Richard Dixon,

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Ron Wimberley,
 N.C. State University

Robert Wortham,
 North Carolina
 Central University
Volume 3, Number 2
Fall 2005

Reassessing the Effect of Urbanism and Regionalism:  A Comparison of Different Indicators of Racial Tolerance

J. Scott Carter

University of West Georgia



    The classical theories of Louis Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Samuel Stouffer (1955) relating urbanism and non-Southern living to tolerance have stimulated a great deal of research.  Both Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955) reflected on the diversity and heterogeneity of urban life as conducive to toleration of individuals from different social and cultural backgrounds.  Stouffer (1955) further adds that certain regions may also produce conditions that foster toleration.  In general, research testing the basic propositions of Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955) find urban and non-Southern residents to be more tolerant of various groups typically discriminated against than their non-urban and Southern counterparts (Abrahamson and Carter 1986; Jang and Alba 1992, Tuch 1987).  In reference to African Americans, for example, past research has documented a significant positive effect of urban and non-Southern residency (Carter et. al. Forthcoming; Tuch 1987). 

     An important question flowing from that research is whether the observed attitudinal distinctiveness by place of residency translates into explanations about the causes of racial inequality.  Two basic explanations have been discussed in the literature.  First, some pose that inequality is a consequence of external structural factors.  A structural explanation of inequality is more sympathetic and blames structural limitations, such as discrimination, as restricting the social and economic opportunities of African Americans (Kleugel 1990; Kleugel and Smith 1982).  Secondly, others pose that racial disparities in social and economic success are a result of individual characteristics, such as a lack of work ethic, rather than any form of racial discrimination.  This individualistic explanation is less sympathetic to the plight of African Americans and denies structural limits to the opportunities afforded to African Americans as a whole (Kinder and Mendelberg 2000; Kleugel and Smith 1982).

    Beliefs about the causes of racial inequity have garnered a great deal of research recently and have practical consequences.  Kleugel (1990) concludes that a person’s explanation about inequality (either more structural or individualistic) influences their attitudes toward governmental policy aimed to enhance opportunities of African Americans.  In general, those who see structural limitations to the success of African Americans are more likely to support programs that enhance the opportunities of African Americans, whereas those who maintain individualistic explanations of racial inequality see government intervention and associated programs as unnecessary.  With this said, this paper assesses whether the apparent toleration of African Americans by urban and non-Southern respondents translates into more sympathetic explanations about the causes of racial inequality in America. 

    With this said, this paper further investigates the distinctive impact or urban and regional residence.  Simple toleration as emphasized in the classical work of Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955) may not translate into more sympathetic beliefs regarding the unequal positions held by African Americans.  Urban and non-South residents may merely learn to “live and let live” and espouse principles of racial equality without necessarily maintaining more sympathetic explanations of the causes of inequality.  Sears et. al. (2000) argue that regional differences become less sharp once respondents are asked questions regarding policies such as Affirmative Action.  In fact, they pose that regional differences in attitudes may actually reverse and Southerners become more tolerant than non-Southerners (Sears et. al. 2000).  Similar findings may be predicted for urban residents as well.  Inherent in this argument is the idea that underlying negative attitudes toward African Americans may not vary by place of residency (including urban and region) and subtler questions measuring racial attitudes may reveal differing results. 

    Following the foregoing, this research attempts to answer the following questions.  In concert with past research, are urban and non-Southern residents more likely to espouse principles of racial equality and does that impact persists into more contemporary data?  Early research assessing the effect of place of residency used questions regarding principles of equality predominately to assess toleration (Carter et. al. Forthcoming).  Correspondingly, are urban and non-Southern residents more likely to view inequality as resulting from external structural limitations than are non-urban and Southern residents?  By using different indicators to assess racial toleration, this research is able to further flesh out the impact of place of residency and further test the propositions outlined by Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955). 



    To explain the unique effect of urban residency, Wirth ([1938] 1964) developed several propositions comprising a theory of urbanism.  According to Wirth ([1938] 1964), metropolitan areas bring individuals from various cultural backgrounds into close contact within a relatively small space.  Furthermore, Wirth ([1938] 1964) argues that caste-like separations in the metropolitan spheres create an overabundance of secondary relationships that foster tolerant attitudes toward others from different cultures, personalities, and backgrounds. 

    Wirth ([1938] 1964) posits that the effect of urbanism on residents is a function of three variables: the size of the population, the density of the population, and the heterogeneity the population.  Individuals from larger metropolitan communities that are densely populated with heterogeneous groups tend to be more psychologically sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, therefore, generally more accepting and tolerant of differences.  By contrast, individuals from smaller communities more sparsely populated with homogenous groups tend to be more conservative, parochial, maintain more personal acquaintances, and thus, more judgmental and less tolerant of differences.

    Similar to Wirth ([1938] 1964), Stouffer (1955) argues that residents of metropolitan areas are exposed to others considered to be “the strange and the different” which produces a static urban lifestyle and greater acceptance of others with varying social and cultural backgrounds.  Testing these ideas, Stouffer (1955) finds urban residents more likely to express tolerant attitudes toward ideas, such as communism, that differ from ones own. 

    Using size as a proxy for urbanism, contemporary research consistently finds urban residents to be more tolerant than non-urban dwellers (Abrahamson and Carter 1986; Fischer 1978; Fischer 1982; Glenn and Hill 1977; Smith and Petersen 1980; Tuch 1987; Williams Jr, Nunn and Peter 1976).  In a replication of Stouffer’s classical work, Williams Jr, Nunn, and Peter (1976) similarly find a positive effect of urban residency on attitudes.  Assessing attitudes of white respondents, Tuch (1987) finds greater tolerance toward African-Americans for urban respondents than non-urban respondents and that appears to be persisting across time.  Similarly, research finds urban residents more willing to support minority candidates for office than non-urban residents (Glenn and Hill 1977). 


    Odum (1945; Odum and Moore 1938) posits that idiosyncratic features of geography produce distinct cultures.  Odum (1945) argues that various geographical elements, such as wealth, abundance of natural resources, type of economy (e.g., agriculture vs industrial), produce distinct regional sub-cultures.  The differences between regional areas are often expressed through personalities or varying attitudes, which are often the focus of research comparing Southern cultures with non-Southern cultures. 

    Ecological divisions had obvious ramifications in the South.  The backdrop of the “Old South” culture was not conducive to tolerance between the races.  The burgeoning plantation economy was sustained by legalized slavery, whereas in the North, a more industrial economy, slaves were not as essential. However, blacks were not necessarily well treated in the North.  Slavery in the South, nevertheless, created severe status distinctions not found in other regions.  Such disparity in social status fueled intolerant attitudes (Schuman et. al. 1997). 

    Stouffer (1955) further argues that regional variations in tolerance are a result of migration.  Certain regions are magnets for transient individuals and experience greater geographic mobility.  Geographic mobility, in turn, creates diversity and tolerance towards others of different cultural and social backgrounds.  Such change was never more evident than during the World War II era, where a surge of African Americans moved from the South to the industrial North for employment (Schuman et. al. 1997).  However, a recent move by African Americans back to the South may potentially affect regional variation (Loftus 2001). 

    Existing evidence shows that Southerners hold more prejudicial views toward African Americans than their non-Southern counterparts (Abrahamson and Carter 1986; Middleton 1976; Schuman, et. al. 1997; Stouffer 1955; Tuch 1987; Williams Jr., Nunn, and Peter 1976).  Middleton (1976), for example, observes Southerners to be more prejudiced toward African-American than non-Southerners, but that region’s impact differs only slightly with respect toward other groups, such as Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Middleton (1976) further argues that increased levels of anti-black prejudice in the South suggest a special sub-cultural tradition of anti-black prejudice in the South not found in the North. 

Indicators of Prejudicial Attitudes

    The literature reporting attitudinal differences by urbanism and region is replete with findings that predominantly measure attitudes using what Schuman et. al. (1997) term “principle questions.”  These questions typically ask respondents how they feel in principle about racial prejudice and inequality.  With this said, these principle questions have been criticized extensively as possibly revealing only socially desirable responses or mere lip service (Schuman et. al 1997).  In fact, survey research using these types of questions finds almost a consensus of acceptance.  Nonetheless, Schuman et. al. (1997) argue that although these questions may not predict behavioral intentions, they do represent normative expectations in our society.  That is, respondents feel pressure to answer in a socially appropriate manner. 

    Regardless, in using the principle questions, a persistent effect of urbanism and region on racial attitudes is often found (Carter et. al. Forthcoming, Tuch 1987).  With this pattern reflected consistently in the literature, this paper assesses whether these apparent tolerant attitudinal differences by urbanism and region is found using other indicators of toleration.  That is, do attitudinal patterns found in the urban/region literature translate into explanations of racial inequality in America (termed “explanations for inequality” questions by Schuman et. al. 1997).


Following the discussion above, the following predictions are tested.

H1: Urban residents will be more tolerant of African Americans than non-urban residents when assessing tolerance using principle questions.

H2: Non-Southern residents will be more tolerant of African Americans than Southern residents when assessing tolerance using principle questions.

H3: Urban residents will be more empathetic in explaining the causes of racial inequality than non-urban residents.

H4: Non-Southern residents will be more empathetic in explaining the causes of racial inequality than Southern residents.

Data and Measures


    The data come from the General Social Survey (GSS).  The GSS is annually administered by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and is based on a probability sample of the adult non-institutionalized civilian population of the United States, stratified by region and metropolitan versus non-metropolitan residence, annually administered between 1972-1994 and biennially thereafter.  Interviews are conducted by telephone, with selection by random digit dialing (Davis and Smith 2002). 

Dependent Variable

    To assess toleration, two indices were created from questions collected from the GSS.  One index included several questions measuring principles of racial equality.   The second index included several questions assessing the respondent’s explanation of the causes of racial inequality. 

    The first index (termed principle index) includes principle questions used by past research to assess racial prejudice (Carter et. al. Forthcoming; Firebaugh and Davis, 1988; Wilson, 1986, Tuch’s 1987).  These questions meet the stipulated criteria of questions of principle as defined by Schuman et. al. (1997)  (1) and have been employed in past research to assess racial prejudice (Condran 1979; Firebaugh and Davis 1988; Greeley and Sheatsley 1971; Tuch 1987; Wilson 1986).  The two questions concern attitudes toward interracial marriage (Racmar) and African American pushing themselves where they don’t belong (Racpush). 

    The second index (termed Explanation Index) is a composite of four questions from the GSS asking respondents their explanation of the causes of racial inequality.   These explanations of inequality questions are taken directly from the work of Schuman et al. (1997).  Respondents were asked how strongly they feel the unequal distribution of jobs, income and housing is caused by discrimination (Racdiff1), in-born ability to learn (Racdiff2), lack of opportunity for a good education (Racdiff3), and/or the lack of motivation (Racdiff4).  (2)

Independent Variables

    In order to assess the independent impact of urbanism and regionalism, this paper controls for several extraneous variables established in the literature, including sex, race, income, education, age, year, and, of course, urbanism and regionalism.  In the literature assessing the impact of urbanism and region, it has been argued that the effect of urbanism on attitudes is a function of various demographic characteristics, including race, social status, and life cycle stage.  Gans (1962) made an argument that if such factors were controlled, then the differences found by size of residency would become insignificant. In testing this assertion, he found a reduction in the effect of urbanism on attitudes after controlling for several compositional variables, including occupational prestige, religion, race, and region.

    Therefore this paper includes several control variables, including race, sex, age, education, income level, and level of religious fundamentalism.  The race variable in the model compared only white and black respondents.  Respondents in the “other” category were dropped from the analysis.  Similarly, the sex variable compared males and females.  The income variable was treated as an ordinal variable ranking from 1 to 12 with higher scores equating to higher incomes.  Education was treated as a ratio variable ranging from 0 to 20 years of education.   Similarly, age was also treated as a ratio variable measured by years.  To assess the impact of religious fundamentalism, respondents were asked to rate their church as being fundamental, moderate, or liberal. 

    Finally, this paper includes two variables to discern the size of residence and region of residence.  The size of resident variable in the GSS is somewhat vague and differentiates between SMSA and non-SMSA residence.   For the purpose of this paper, the urbanism variable was treated as a dichotomous variable comparing urban and non-urban locales. (3)  Region of residency was also dichotomized comparing respondents from the South and respondents from the non-South.  The determination of South and non-South was affected by two elements.  First of all, past research was used to rate states Southern or non-Southern and, secondly, the categories provide by the GSS affected which states were rated as South or non-South. (4)


    Table 1 displays preliminary analyses of unadjusted principle index mean tolerance scores from 1972 to 2002 by urban/non-urban and South/non-South and differences by year. 

Table 1

Mean Scores for Principle Index (1) by Urban/Non-Urban and South/Non-South 1972-2002

(1)  The Principle Index includes the following two questions from past work (Tuch 1987):  1) Do you think there should be laws against marriages between (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) and whites? [1=Yes; 0=No]; and 2) (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) shouldn’t push themselves where they’re not wanted. [1 = Agree; 0=Disagree]

Using an independent-samples t-test, findings show a statistical significant urban/non-urban and South/non-South difference in racial tolerance across majority of years (see year 2002 for the only exception). 

   Interestingly, although a movement toward greater tolerance regardless of residency type is found, an attitudinal gap is apparent across majority of years.  Thus, it appears that these findings corroborate past results and support the first two predictions (H1 and H2) by showing urban and non-Southern residents to hold more tolerant views toward principle of racial equality than their non-urban and Southern counterparts. 

    Assessing unadjusted Explanation Index mean tolerance scores reveal similar results (See Table 2).

Table 2

Mean Scores for Explanation Index (1) by Urban/Non-Urban and South/NonSouth 1977-2002

*=p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001
(1) The Explanation Index includes the following four questions in reference to the following statement: “On the average (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) have worse, jobs, income, and housing than white people.”  Respondents were then asked to respond to the following four questions 1) Do you think these differences are mainly due to discrimination [1=Yes; 0=No]; 2) Because most (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) have less in-born ability to learn? [1=Yes; 0=No]; 3) Because most (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) don’t have the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty? [1=Yes; 0=No]; and 4) Because most (Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty? [1-Yes; 0=No]

    Southerners and urban residents maintain less tolerant and more individualistic explanations of racial inequality.  Using an independent-samples t-test, non-Southern residents were consistently more likely (across all years) to use structural explanations to explain racial inequality.  However, for urban residents the effect appears much more variable.  In several years (i.e., 1977, 1985, 1986, 1989, and 1991), the differences do not reach statistical significance and, in some years, the significance is marginal at the .05 level (see 1994 and 1998 for example).  Although much more for the effect of region, these findings appear to support past research and our last two predictions (H3 and H4). 

    Table 3 shows parameter estimates and fit statistics from two different models regressing the composition variables on the Explanation Index and Principle Index.  Controlling for several compositional variables, these models provide a much more comprehensive test of the four predictions. 

Table 3

Unstandardized Coefficients (Main Effects) and Standard Errors for Principle and Explanation Indices

Main Effects
for Principle
Main Effects for
Model 1
Model 2
Urban (Urban = 1)
.202 (.021)***
-.008 (.012)
Region (South = 1)
-.368 (.020)***
-1.77 (.011)***
Sex (Male = 1)
-.174 (.019)***
-.095 (.011)***
Race (White = 1)
-.785 (.033)***
-.423 (.017)***
Household Income
.021 (.004)***
-.006 (.002)**
High School
-.966 (.35)***
-.243 (.028)***
-.433 (.036)***
-.106 (.019)***
Post College
Age 18-24
.979 (.049)***
.243 (028)***
Age 25-34
.769 (.046)***
.162 (.025)***
Age 35-44
.598 (.046)***
.133 (.25)***
Age 45-54
.420 (.047)***
.097 (.026)***
Age 55-64
.198 (.048)***
Age 65-74
.116 (.049)*
-.012 (.028)
Age 75 +
.180 (.013)***
.040 (.070)***
.034 (.001)***
R Square = .312
R Square = .103
df  = 14586
df  = 12966
*=p<.05;  **p<.01; ***p<.001. 
Standard Errors are in parentheses.

    In general, net of all control variables, findings across question types show that individuals who are white, males, older, lower education, and fundamental in their religious view are more likely to hold intolerant attitudes toward African Americans regardless of question type.  The sole exception is for the household income variable.  For principle questions, individuals with higher family incomes were less tolerant than individuals with lower family incomes.  However, this finding reverses when the Explanation Index is used as the dependent variable; individuals with higher family incomes maintain more tolerant attitudes toward African Americans than individuals with lower family incomes.

    Assessing the effect of urbanism and region also provides variation and test of the four predictions.  Net of all control variables, Southern and urban resident were more likely to espouse principles of racial equality than their non-Southern and non-urban counterparts.  Therefore, these findings adjacent with the unadjusted Principle Index mean scores provide support for predictions H1 and H2.  Assessing tolerance using Explanation Index, provide differing results.  Individuals from the non-South were more likely to use structural limitations to explain inequality, whereas individuals from Southern regions were more likely to use an individualistic explanation to explain racial inequality.  However, the effect of urbanism diminished once tolerance was assessed using belief questions.  Individuals from urban and non-urban areas maintain similar explanations of racial inequality.  Therefore, these findings support for prediction H4 but not for prediction H3. 


    In general our results reveal that the effect of region persisted regardless of question type used to measure racial tolerance.  Southerners were generally more likely to espouse principle of racial equality as well as view the cause of racial inequality as falling outside the control of African Americans.  Non-Southerners, on the other hand, were more likely to view causes of inequality as being more individualistic.  However, question type did differ by size of residency. 

    Although urban resident were more likely to espouse principles of racial inequality, they did not differ from non-urban residents in their views regarding the causes of inequality.  Therefore, it appears that Schuman et al.’s (1997) reproach to distinguish principle questions from explanation of inequality questions is necessary in revealing the true complexities of racial prejudice. 

    One possible explanation for the strong regional variation is that, given its unique heritage with slavery, the South produces a subculture that fosters more negative attitudes specifically toward African Americans.  A second view is that the South is the most conservative region politically and, thus questions that evoke individualistic beliefs will garner less acceptance.   Lipset and Schneider (1978) argue that belief in individualism does not necessarily reflect a racist ideology but rather a genuinely held American value.

    Turning now to urbanism, it appears that the effect depends on how tolerance is measured.  Using questions that assess explanations of inequality reduces the effect of urbanism and supports the idea that the level of acceptance in urban locales may be superficial.  Urbanites learn to accept others of differing social and cultural backgrounds without developing more empathetic beliefs about the causes of racial inequality.   Although this finding does not necessarily oppose the theoretical propositions of Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955), the findings are interesting and prescribe further need to tease out the independent impact of urbanism.  Wirth ([1938] 1964) and Stouffer (1955) imply that the effect of urbanism simply instills in its inhabitants a desire to “live and let live” and does not necessarily entail a deeper level of tolerance.

    In conclusion, this research shows that place of residence still matters.  However, the manner with which toleration is measured temper the effect of urbanism.  Urban and nonurban residents maintain similar explanations about the causes of racial inequality.  The effect of region, on the other hand, appears to persist even with the use of these more subtle questions measuring racial tolerance. 


  (1) See Table 1 for full question and available responses.  Preliminary analyses (available upon request) reveal a high level of consistency across the two principle questions.  In a principal component analysis of the two questions, only the first component had an eigenvalue greater than zero (1.33), and it accounted for over 67 percent of the variance.

(2)  See Table 1 for full questions and available responses.  A principle component analysis for the four explanation questions also provided consistency, with first component maintaining an eigenvalue of 1.67 and accounting for over 40 percent of the variance.

(3) More precisely, the following categories were used to delineate urban and non-urban.  Urban: within an SMSA and-- a large central city (over 250,000); a medium size central city (50,000 to 250,000); a suburb of a large central city; a suburb of a medium size central city; an unincorporated area of a large central city (division, township, etc), an unincorporated area of a medium central city. Non-urban includes the following areas: Not within an SMSA, (within a county) and-- a small city (10,000 to 49,999); a town or village (2,500 to 9,999); an incorporated area less than 2,500 or an unincorporated area of 1,000 to 2,499; open country within larger civil divisions, e.g., township, division.

(4) Non-South: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. South includes the following states: Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas.


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