Posted on July 31, 2018

White Threat in a Browning America

Ezra Klein, Vox, July 30, 2018


I spent months talking with politicians, social psychologists, and political scientists about what happens in moments like this one, moments when a majority feels its dominance beginning to fail. The answer, attested to in mountains of studies and visible everywhere in our politics, is this: Change of this magnitude acts on us psychologically, not just electorally. It is the crucial context uniting the core political conflicts of this era — Obama and Trump’s presidencies, the rise of reactionary new social movements and thinkers, the wars over political correctness on campuses and representation in Hollywood, the power of #MeToo and BlackLivesMatter, the fights over immigration.

Demographic change, and the fears and hopes it evokes, is one of the tectonic forces shaping this era in American life, joining income inequality and political polarization in transforming every aspect of our politics and culture. But to understand what it is doing to us as a country, we need to begin by understanding what it does to us as individuals.

In 2014, psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson analyzed the responses of 369 white, self-identified political independents who had completed one of two surveys. Half of the participants received a survey that asked them whether they knew that California had become a majority-minority state — which is to say, a state where whites no longer made up more than 50 percent of the population. The others read a survey devoid of demographic information.

This was a gentle test of an unnerving theory: that the barest exposure to the concept that whites were losing their numerical majority in America would not just make whites feel afraid but sharply change their political behavior. The theory proved correct. Among participants who lived in the western United States, the group that read that whites had ceded majority status were 11 points likelier to subsequently say they favored the Republican Party.

In a follow-up study, Craig and Richeson handed some white subjects a press release about geographic mobility, while others read one explaining that “racial minorities will constitute a majority of the U.S. populace by 2042.” The group that read the racially tinged release “produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health care reform.”

(It’s worth noting that these dynamics cut in the other direction too: A 2016 study by Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo split a sample of Asian-American college students into two groups. One group was subjected to a staged microaggression during the study — their US citizenship was doubted by the researcher managing the experiment. The incident increased support for Democrats by 13 percentage points.)

Perhaps the most striking experiment in this space was conducted by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos. He attempted something rare in social science: an actual test of what seeing more diversity in our everyday surroundings does to our political opinions. His explanation of both the experiment and its results is worth reading:

I sent Spanish speakers to randomly selected train stations in towns around Boston to simply catch the train and ride like any other passenger. I focused on stations in white suburbs. The intent was to create the impression, by subtle manipulation, that the Latino population in these segregated towns was increasing.

Before and after sending these Spanish speakers to the train platforms, I surveyed passengers on the platforms about their attitudes about immigration. After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies — including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants — similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.

Enos goes on to note that his findings match what we saw in 2016: The biggest gains Donald Trump made over Mitt Romney’s performance “were in the places where the Latino population had grown most quickly. … For example, Luzerne County, adjacent to Scranton, Pennsylvania, had experienced an almost 600 percent growth in its Latino population between 2000 and 2014, and, after decades of voting Democrat in presidential elections, gave Trump 12 percentage points more votes than it had given to Romney in 2012.”


What happens when the exposure isn’t so subtle?

When Obama was elected in 2008, there was much talk of America moving into a post-racial moment. But as Michael Tesler shows in his powerful book Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era, the mere existence of Obama’s presidency further racialized American politics, splitting the two parties not just by racial composition but by racial attitudes.

What Tesler proves is that in the Obama era, attitudes on race drove attitudes on almost everything else, in a way that’s unique in recent American politics. The black-white divide in support for Obamacare was 20 percentage points larger than the black-white divide over Bill Clinton’s similarly controversial proposal, for instance.

But it wasn’t just health care. Party identification became significantly more divided by race. Perceptions of the economy became significantly more divided by race. Even perceptions of the president’s dogs became more divided by race — shown pictures of the Obamas’ dog Bo, more racially resentful Americans liked the dog better when told it was a picture of Ted Kennedy’s dog Splash.


White voters who feel they are losing a historical hold on power are reacting to something real. For the bulk of American history, you couldn’t win the presidency without winning a majority — usually an overwhelming majority — of the white vote. Though this changed before Obama (Bill Clinton won slightly less of the white vote than his Republican challengers), the election of an African-American president leading a young, multiracial coalition made the transition stark and threatening.


Ashley Jardina is a political scientist at Duke University who studies racial identity. In her 2014 dissertation The Demise of Dominance: Group Threat and the New Relevance of White Identity for American Politics, she argues that generations of scholars have taken African-American and Hispanic and Asian identity seriously but assumed there was no such thing as white identity. The conventional wisdom was that “because of their numerical majority and political dominance, whites do not, by and large, possess their own sense of racial identification, and they do not feel consciously compelled to protect some sense of group interest.”

Jardina argued — and, in a series of experiments, proved — that this was wrong. White political identity is “conditional.” It emerges in some periods and is absent in others. The periods it emerges in are periods like this one.

“When the dominant status of whites relative to racial and ethnic minorities is secure and unchallenged, white identity likely remains dormant,” she writes. “When whites perceive their group’s dominant status is threatened or their group is unfairly disadvantaged, however, their racial identity may become salient and politically relevant.”


In 1996, white voters were more closely split between the two parties, the Hispanic vote was smaller, and both parties were more skeptical of immigration. In 2016, white voters were concentrated in the Republican Party, Hispanic voters were far more powerful, and this cut a political schism in which Democrats became friendlier to immigrants and Republicans nominated Trump.


Take that idea and extend it out into the coming decades of American politics. The Democratic Party will not be able to win elections without an excited, diverse coalition. The Republican Party will not be able to win elections without an enthused white base. Democrats will need to build a platform that’s even more explicit in its pursuit of racial and gender equality, while Republicans will need to design a politics even more responsive to a coalition that feels itself losing power.


As we navigate these sensitivities, we can do so with more or less care. Richeson believes it would be wise for demographers to stop using terms like “majority-minority America” — after all, whites will still be a plurality, and what good can come of framing America’s trajectory in a way that leaves the single largest group feeling maximally threatened? It sounds like “a force of nonwhite people who are coming and they are working as a coalition to overturn white people and whiteness,” Richeson said, laughing. “That’s a problem!”

Richeson’s research shows that if you can add reassurance to discussions of demographic change — telling people, for instance, that the shifts are unlikely to upend existing power or economic arrangements — the sense of threat, and the tilt toward racial and political conservatism, vanishes. The problem, she admits, is, “we can’t say, ‘Don’t worry, white people, you’ll be okay and you’ll get to run everything forever!’”

The other problem is that the conversation about, and the experience of, a browning America will not be driven by demographers and social psychologists; it will be driven by ambitious politicians looking for an edge, by political pundits looking for ratings, by outrageous stories going viral on social media, by cultural controversies like Gamergate and Roseanne Barr getting fired.