A recent study of ours, which looked at how white Americans’ attitudes toward Hispanic Americans and black Americans shifted from 1970 to 2010, revealed a zero-sum dynamic. During that period, hostility toward Latinos increased, while hostility toward black Americans declined. The effect seems to be causal: in parts of the country that had the most immigration, both the negative views of Latinos and the positive views of black Americans were stronger.
This suggests that the boundaries of social groups in different societies are not fixed: What separates “us” from “them” changes depending on the context. And the interactions can be complex: Especially as the number of Latin Americans increased, other groups, such as Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, did not benefit in the same way as black Americans, we found. Our research suggests that this is because white Americans saw Asian Americans and Muslim Americans as more “foreign” than black Americans.
For our research project, we compared changes in the proportion of the Mexican-born population across U.S. states, counties, and censuses from 1970 to 2010. We measured prejudices against different racial or ethnic groups using data from several representative surveys of American social attitudes, take a particularly close look at an “emotional thermometer,” a question asked in repeated waves by the U.S. National Electoral Survey (ANES). The survey asked respondents how warm they felt about each group, on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher numbers reflecting more positive emotions. For states and counties with the slightest change in Mexican immigration between 1970 and 2010, white people’s thermometer ratings of black people remained the same – or even dropped slightly.
Candidate Kamala Harris had a plan to help Dreamers. Why not use it?
But in parts of the United States that saw larger increases in the population of Mexican immigrants, we found that over time, white Americans rated black Americans warmer on the emotional thermometer – as negative attitudes toward Latinos grew. More generally, we found that Mexican immigration can explain up to 55 percent of the increase in whites ‘thermometer ratings of blacks since 1970. (Overall, whites’ ratings of their black citizens on the emotion thermometer increased by three points, from 61 to 64, from 1970 to 2010. )
During the study period, white Americans consistently viewed Latin Americans more negatively than African Americans: White respondents’ assessment of emotion thermometers for Hispanics was lower than for African Americans each year, ANES was conducted from 1976 to 2008. As areas experienced increases in Mexican immigration gap in whites attitudes to the two groups extended.
As in all observational studies, we faced an important empirical challenge in establishing causality. For example, Mexican immigrants could have settled in areas where whites’ attitudes toward racism became more liberal over time. This would be problematic because we would attribute the influx of Mexican immigrants to what would actually be an independent change in racial attitudes among whites. To overcome this and similar problems, we took advantage of the fact that most new immigrants tend to move to places where their ethnic communities are larger; we predicted the number of Mexican immigrants settling in a given U.S. territory, based on the historical distribution of the Mexican population. As long as the historical distribution of Mexican enclaves was not related to future changes in white racial attitudes, this strategy allowed us to isolate the causal effect of immigration on white attitudes toward black Americans.
To better understand the phenomenon we identified, we conducted an online survey experiment in which we got about 500 white non-Hispanic respondents to think about the size of the Latin American population in the United States and asked them to estimate the proportion of Hispanics in the country. (We did not correct their guess; the point was simply to get them to think about the topic.) In the 259-person control group, respondents were instead asked to estimate the average age of residents in the United States – a neutral topic. We then asked respondents to tell us how well they felt different characteristics characterized ethnic and racial groups in the United States, including the extent to which they were “Americans.”
Overall, the white respondents in our study ranked whites as mostly American, followed, by some distance, by African Americans. Hispanics and Asians were ranked next, with Muslims at the bottom.
Respondents who were encouraged to think about the size of the Latin American population were significantly more likely to perceive black Americans as “Americans.” No such change was observed for any of the other groups. This finding suggests that “immigrant” or “foreigner” is a separate category in the minds of Americans. When immigration becomes conspicuous, immigrants are cast as the primary out-group and prejudices are directed against them. This diverts prejudice away from other discriminated groups.
This study is not the only evidence that prejudice is a limited resource, distributed by whites across races and ethnic groups in ways that change over time. In the early 20th century, the migration of black southern Jews to cities in the Northeast and Midwest served to divert white Americans’ prejudices away from European immigrants, enabling Italians, Poles, and Russian Jews to assimilate into whiteness “on the back of The blacks “, as Toni Morrison put it eloquently. Recent research shows that a reduction in anti-Muslim hatred after Donald Trump’s rhetoric subsided was accompanied by rising anti-Semitism in online media. Right-wing extremist groups targeting Muslims appear to have partially turned their attention to Jews.
Our results have implications for the future of group relationships in the United States. Diversity and rapid demographic change mean that the boundaries of “us” and “them” are constantly shifting. Increases in the size or appearance of a group can change the position of all other groups. The grim takeaway is that while relative rankings change, group hierarchies exist.