diversity in america

White Americans’ Reactions to Rising Diversity

With every day, the makeup of the United States continues to change. Years ago, America was overwhelmingly White[1]  But let’s face it–years before that, it was overwhelmingly non-European, too, and now a quick look around the country reveals vast racial and ethnic diversity.

In fact, the U.S. Census has projected that by 2044, Whites will make up less than 50% of the American population. This has been called the point at which the U.S. becomes a “majority-minority nation,” meaning that non-White groups make up the majority of the population. The Census Bureau’s 2015 report even projects that “by 2060, 64 percent of children will belong to racial and ethnic minorities.”

Despite the benefits of diversity, it might seem like these trends would rattle White Americans who have sat as a powerful majority in the country for a long time. Recent studies have looked into this, asking how White Americans react to the notion of living in a “majority-minority” nation.

Facing Rising Diversity Promotes Racial Prejudice

Many champion the notion of diversity and propose that increasing diversity would ease tensions between racial and ethnic groups. The disappointing irony, though, is that this diversity could instead deepen those tensions.

diversity in americaBack in the 1950s, Thomas Pettigrew found that anti-Black prejudice was stronger in communities with a greater percentage of Blacks living there. He also found that people were more resistant to school desegregation in communities with greater concentrations of Black residents. These trends seem to not just be products of the 50s. Similar patterns have been shown in later research, too.

New approaches, though, address this issue head-on. In one recent study, White Americans read a newspaper article about U.S. demographics. At random, half of them read an article about the future of American diversity (“In a Generation, Ethnic Minorities May Be the U.S. Majority”), and the other half read an article about current American demographics (“U.S. Census Bureau Releases New Estimates of the US Population by Ethnicity”).

The question was: does simply facing the changing racial composition of the country jolt White Americans to express more racial prejudice? To see, all of the participants in the study answered questions about their openness to interacting with other racial and ethnic groups.

Results of the study showed that White Americans faced with their country’s changing demographics went on to express a stronger preference to hang out with other Whites instead of racial minorities, compared to those who read the other article.

A second study makes it even more clear. In this case, a group of White Americans either read an article about the future majority-minority status of the U.S. or an article about the future majority-minority status of the Netherlands. The article was the same in each case, except for the country where the demographics were shifting.

This study also explored racial bias differently, looking at people’s first gut reactions to minority groups. The results mirror those of the other study. White Americans who think about rising diversity in the U.S. go on to express more negative automatic reactions to minority groups and more positive automatic reactions to Whites, compared to those who think about the same diversity trends in the Netherlands.

Thinking About Diversity Encourages More Conservatism

Is it just about racial prejudice, though? Some other studies would suggest that there’s something else going on, too.

Instead of just instilling greater prejudice, facing rising diversity can also prompt Whites to adopt more conservative values.

One study used a similar approach to the previous ones. In it, White American participants either read an article about the changing U.S. demographics or a different article focused on changes in geographic mobility in the U.S. This time, though, instead of measuring racial prejudice, the researchers gave everyone 5 political issues to think about. Three of the issues were about race (e.g., affirmative action), and two weren’t (e.g., health-care reform). Everyone simply said how much they supported policies regarding these issues.

White Americans who read about the country’s rising diversity adopted more conservative positions on all of these issues than the White Americans who read the other article. It’s important to point out that it didn’t matter whether the policy was race-related or not. Across all five, facing a future of a “majority-minority nation” made people lean more conservative.

It’s About a Threat to Status

At this point, it’s clear that the changing demographics in the U.S. has an impact on White Americans. But why?

Throughout this research, there’s a recurring finding. Facing rising diversity provokes these reactions because it makes people concerned about a loss of societal status. In a number of these studies, after reading about how Whites are likely to dip below 50% representation in the U.S. population, people are more likely to say that more status given to minority groups means less status maintained by Whites.

diversity in the U.S.Other research has shown something similar. It seems that Whites see race relations as “zero sum.” For example, Whites tend to think that gains being made by Blacks mean the emergence of anti-White bias. It’s a belief not shared by Blacks, who instead acknowledge that anti-Black bias has decreased over the years (although not by as much as Whites tend to perceive) but not that anti-White bias is on the rise.

One final study gives us even more evidence that this is about perceived status threats. As in the other studies, this one asked White Americans to read about rising U.S. diversity or a different topic. The new bit, though, is that sometimes the article about rising U.S. diversity had an extra paragraph, which clarified that the changing demographics wouldn’t mean anything for status relations.

Like before, people endorsed more conservative policy positions after reading about rising diversity, compared to a separate topic. But there was one important exception. When the article claimed that rising diversity wouldn’t threaten the existing system of power and status, White Americans were no more likely to endorse conservative policies than if they read about a totally different topic. This evidence is important because it clearly shows how concerns about status matter. People swing conservative when racial hierarchies appear to be under threat, but an ideological shift isn’t necessary when there’s little chance that racial status systems will change.

Diversity: Friend or Foe?

For what it’s worth, your take-away lesson shouldn’t be that diversity is bad. Not only is it generally moral and compassionate to be open to all sorts of people in the world, but diversity can be practical, too. As just one example, creativity and problem-solving can be helped by the multiple perspectives diversity can bring.

It’s worth understanding, though, the range of challenges that remain before fully prospering in a diverse world. Threats to power and status can deepen racial divides. Knowing this, though, urges us to consider ways of facing these challenges and moving forward in a time of ethnic and political polarization.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  But let’s face it–years before that, it was overwhelmingly non-European, too

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