Menus Subscribe Search



(Photo: imanolqs/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.

September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.

September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.

September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.

September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?

September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.

September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

Follow us

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.