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Attitudes of Mississippi college students toward David Duke before and after seeing the film 'Who Is David Duke?'

David Duke is one of the most interesting social and political phenomenons of recent times. A former head of the Ku Klux Klan and a former Nazi sympathizer, he has denied his racist past, saying it was youthful indiscretion. He is a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and ran a strong race for the United States Senate, in which he gained about 45% of the total vote and more than 50% of the white vote in Louisiana (Eisenman, 1992). A study of why people like him may throw light on the psychology of prejudice and on how attitudes are formed, and a study of reaction to the film Who Is David Duke may cast light on how prejudice can be changed.

Today, it is usually not acceptable to be overtly racist in the United States, although indirect expression is often prevalent. Duke's denial of his past is a clever position, since voters can support him yet deny that they dislike blacks or Jews. Social stigma may be avoided if others can be convinced that the denial is sincere (Eisenman, 1991; Goffman, 1963; Jones, Farina, Hastorf, Markus, Miller, & Scott, 1984). Thus, Duke's constant attack on blacks, using code terms such as "welfare cheats," allows one to hold an implicitly racist view without overt acknowledgment.

Although Duke claims he is not a racist or a Nazi and no longer sympathizes with such people, the Public Broadcasting System film Who Is David Duke?, shown on the program "Frontline," provides a different picture. In this film, people say that when they talk with Duke in private, a totally different image emerges. In contrast with his public stance of not being a prejudiced person, in private he condemns blacks and Jews, says the Holocaust never happened, and once advised a Nazi to be less obvious in what he is saying. This would seem to indicate that Duke has not given up his racism. Would students who see this film change their views of Duke? A previous study indicated that just over 50% of a sample of students at a Louisiana university liked Duke (Eisenman, 1992), and another study found that Louisiana university students who liked Duke for the most part did not change after seeing Who Is David Duke? (Eisenman, 1993).

University students in Mississippi should be just as prejudiced as those in Louisiana, if not more so, given the history of racism in that state. On the other hand, Duke is from Louisiana, and his appeal to students in that state may be influenced by his being "one of ours." If this second explanation is most important, Mississippi university students might be less supportive of Duke than Louisiana students were found to be. For the present research, two improvements over the Eisenman (1993) study were made. First, data were collected during one session. In the earlier study, the film was shown over two class sessions, since the class met for only 50 minutes. This approach could have allowed students to discuss their views with one another, biasing the results. Second, in the earlier study, students were asked only two things: to indicate whether they liked or disliked Duke and whether they believed he is a racist. In the present study, a seven-item questionnaire was administered before and after the film. In addition to the above two questions, students were asked whether they would vote for Duke, whether they believed he is right about welfare, about blacks, and about the Holocaust, and whether he is anti-Semitic.



The participants were 211 students at a state university in Mississippi who were enrolled in social work and introductory sociology classes. Their mean age was 21.1 years (mode = 18 years).


Students indicated attitudes toward David Duke on a seven-item questionnaire prepared for this study. The questionnaire was filled out once before seeing the film and again immediately afterwards. In addition to yes or no and like or dislike, do not know was a response option, since many students may have had no opinion or knowledge of Duke, especially before seeing the film. The film is about one hour long.


The results are shown in Table 1. Statistical analyses used two-tailed binomial tests (n was less than 211 in some cases due to missing TABULAR DATA OMITTED responses). Before the film, 62 students indicated that they liked Duke and 133 indicated that they disliked him, which was more negative toward Duke than the findings of Eisenman (1993). After the film, there were 18 fewer like responses and 26 more dislike responses. This was a significant change (p |is less than~ .001). For the second question, on racism, 13 students changed in the direction of seeing Duke as racist after viewing the film (p |is less than~ .001). For the third question, 14 fewer students said they would vote for Duke and 19 additional students said they would not vote for him after seeing the film (p |is less than~ .001). On the question asking whether Duke is right about welfare, 61 students became more negative toward Duke and 28 became more positive (p |is less than~ .001). On the question asking whether Duke is right about blacks, after seeing the film 70 students changed in a negative direction toward Duke, with only 6 becoming more favorable (p |is less than~ .001). For the sixth question, 1 less student thought Duke was right about the Holocaust after seeing the film while 122 additional students thought he was wrong (p |is less than~ .001). On the seventh question, 94 additional students saw Duke as anti-Semitic after viewing the film and 13 more thought he was not (p |is less than~ .001). This question had the largest number of nonresponses.
Table 1

Students' Responses Before and After Seeing the Film
"Who is David Duke?"

 Before After

1. Like or dislike
David Duke?

 Like Dislike Like Dislike
 62 133 44 159
 Do Not Know Do Not Know
 7 4

 Yes No Do Not Yes No Do Not
 Know Know

2. Is he a racist? 176 26 2 189 13 6

3. Would you vote
for David Duke? 47 152 5 33 171 4

4. Is Duke right
about welfare? 44 40 126 72 101 38

5. Is Duke right
about blacks? 19 96 96 25 166 19

6. Is Duke right
about the
Holocaust? 5 51 155 4 173 32

7. Is he
anti-Semitic? 35 12 164 129 25 22


The results show the effectiveness of the film Who Is David Duke?, which seemed to expose Duke as anti-black, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi. Students who initially had favorable attitudes toward him often changed to a negative view after seeing the film. The results were consistent with the message of the film, much more so than the findings of Eisenman (1993) with university students in Louisiana. Some of the Louisiana students may have been so pro-Duke that they got the message of the film but rejected it. In a discussion after the Louisiana research, some students said that they are not racist but like what Duke is saying about some things even though he may be racist, and that they may not like all that he says or stands for. This position is either (a) a rationalization or (b) consistent with the view that these students are basically nonideological, and find Duke to their liking because of his charisma. Many in Louisiana see Duke as one who will help people, especially whites, overcome their burdens in a state plagued by economic troubles. Duke is young, has apparently had his appearance improved by plastic surgery, and comes across as not your typical politician. People seem to have a negative view of government (Katz, Gutek, Kahn, & Barton, 1975; Sirgo & Eisenman, 1990), so someone who runs for political office as an outsider may have much appeal. In theory, this should apply to Mississippi students, but to them Duke is an outsider and lacks the "local boy" appeal he has in Louisiana. Thus, with the Mississippi students, an educational film can apparently change attitudes and possibly lead to a reduction of prejudice.

Duke's appeal would seem to reflect a new kind of prejudice, different from the overt racism of the authoritarian personality (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950) but having much in common with it. Duke and his followers can deny being overtly prejudiced, yet maintain views critical of marginalized groups in the United States. Duke's campaign statements have attacked and scapegoated these groups, appealing to those who feel threatened by bad economic times and perceive that blacks get special treatment from the government, such as affirmative action hiring ("Many turning to Duke," 1991). In addition, anti-black attitudes may coincide with support for conservative candidates (Eisenman & Sirgo, 1992).

The support for Duke at the Louisiana university (Eisenman, 1993) was just over 50% of the sample of white students, which is consistent with both a previous study at the same university (Eisenman, 1992) and the actual white vote in the 1990 United States Senate race. Duke lost that election, getting about 45% of the total vote in Louisiana, but receiving about 55% of the white vote (Freemantle, 1990). Thus, these students accurately reflected how people in Louisiana feel toward Duke. In contrast, Mississippi students' attitudes toward Duke were less favorable even before seeing the film, and became much more negative after viewing it. This was especially the case when students initially indicated do not know on certain items. The results lead to two conclusions: (a) it is easier to influence people if they do not feel strongly about something, and (b) students in Mississippi hold more negative attitudes toward Duke than do students in Louisiana. The fact that Duke is from Louisiana may account, in part, for his appeal in that state and for his somewhat surprisingly weak support among the Mississippi students. In addition, the university in Mississippi where this research was conducted appears to have a strong in-group ethos, so while blacks may be disliked by many whites because they are considered the out group, so, too, is Duke.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Eisenman, R. (1991). From crime to creativity: Psychological and social factors in deviance. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Eisenman, R. (1992). Creativity, social and political attitudes, and liking or disliking David Duke. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30, 19-22.

Eisenman, R. (1993). Student attitudes toward David Duke before and after seeing the film "Who Is David Duke?" Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 31, 37-38.

Eisenman, R., & Sirgo, H. B. (1992, March). Racial attitudes and voting behavior in the 1988 national elections. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, Austin, TX.

Freemantle, T. (1990, October 8). Strong finish indicates Duke is future force. Houston Chronicle, pp. 1A, 6A.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jones, E. E., Farina A., Hastorf, A. H., Markus, H., Miller, D. T., & Scott, R. A. (1984). Social stigma: The psychology of marked relationships. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Katz, D., Gutek, B. A., Kahn, R. L., & Barton, E. (1975). Bureaucratic encounters: A pilot study of evaluation of government service. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Many turning to Duke out of frustration, pollster says. (1991, March 27). Lake Charles American Press, p. 10.

Sirgo, H. B., & Eisenman, R. (1990). Perceptions of governmental fairness by liberals and conservatives. Psychological Reports, 67, 1331-1334.

Eddie J. Girdner, Faculty of International Relations, Eastern Mediterranean University, Gazi Magusa, North Cyprus, Turkey.

Robert G. Burroughs and Mark Routman, Division of Social Sciences, Delta State University, Cleveland, Mississippi.
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Author:Eisenman, Russell; Girdner, Eddie J.; Burroughs, Robert G.; Routman, Mark
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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