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Notion of Minority-Majority Nation Exacerbates White Racism

• March 18, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: imanolqs/Shutterstock)

In a study, reminders that whites will soon lose their majority status in the U.S. triggers negative feelings toward minority groups.

It’s common knowledge that the U.S. is well on its way to becoming a minority-majority nation. If current trends hold, whites will represent less than 50 percent of the population by the year 2042.

It would be reasonable, if optimistic, to think that the resultant rubbing of shoulders with people of other races could reduce prejudice, since it’s harder to demonize someone we’re familiar with.

Reasonable, but wrong.

At least, that’s the conclusion of newly published research. It finds discussion of the coming racial shift evokes higher levels of both explicit and implicit racism on the part of white Americans.

A reminder of this demographic reality can prompt whites to feel their social status is threatened—a fear that “evokes more negative attitudes toward racial minority groups,” according to Northwestern University psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson.

“These findings suggest that rather than ushering in a more tolerant future, the increasing diversity of the nation may actually yield more intergroup hostility,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Those who read about the coming demographic shift showed higher levels of racial bias, expressing “a greater relative preference to be in settings/interactions with other whites than racial minorities.”

Group threat theory” was coined as an idea in the 1960s, and has been studied extensively since. As Craig and Richeson note, one of its core concepts is that majority-group members feel increased threat as the size of the minority population increases, “due to concerns regarding competition over economic resources.”

While overwhelming evidence backing up that proposal has been found over the decades, the researchers note that it may reflect “the attitudes of an earlier, more racially prejudiced era.” In the wake of the election—and re-election—of President Obama, some commentators have claimed racism is dead or dying. So is the perceived-threat-breeds-prejudice model still valid?

In four experiments, Craig and Richeson present evidence that the answer is: Very much so.

In the first (which, like the others, featured a small sample), 86 white Americans recruited online read one of two newspaper articles. Half read a piece noting that ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the population within 30 years. The others read a story describing the current ethnic breakdown of the U.S. population.

They then responded to a series of statements designed to measure explicit racial bias. On a one-to-seven scale (“strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), they reacted to such assertions as “It would bother me if my child married someone from a different ethnic background.”

The results: Those who read about the coming demographic shift showed higher levels of racial bias, expressing “a greater relative preference to be in settings/interactions with other whites than racial minorities.”

In two additional experiments, 27 and 30 white Americans, respectively, read either an article about the coming minority-majority status of the U.S., or a piece that describes a comparable racial shift occurring in the Netherlands. They then completed a quick-reaction test that measured implicit bias against one of two minority groups.

Those who read about the changing racial make-up of the U.S. revealed more anti-Asian and anti-black bias than those who read about a similar change taking place in Europe. Members of these groups were thought of less favorably despite the fact that a different minority population, Hispanics, was specifically mentioned in the story as the most important contributor to the demographic shift.

A final experiment, featuring 415 white Americans as part of a nationally representative survey, found a link between such bias and participants’ responses to the statement: “If they increase in status, racial minorities are likely to reduce the influence of white Americans in society.” Fear of this decreased influence was directly related to an increased level of racial hostility.

So can anything be done to mitigate this damaging dynamic? Craig and Richeson believe so.

They contend the peril felt by many whites is exacerbated by the way the media, and even the Census Bureau, are framing the nation’s changing demographics. They suggest that presenting the data in a different way—“perhaps no longer separating non-Hispanic whites from all other groups”—could reduce the perceived threat, which in turn would dampen racist reactions.

By emphasizing the coming end of the while majority, media accounts may lead some whites to think they are being swallowed up by “a monolithic non-white group,” the researchers write. In fact, even after 2043, whites “will remain the largest single racial group in the nation”—a position that virtually assures a high level of societal clout.

If the narrative can somehow shift to reflect that reality, it will reduce the perceived sense of danger—and the racism that it spawns.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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