From suggesting that all Muslims be banned from entering the United States to the claim that a number of Mexicans entering the country are violent criminal offenders, President-elect Donald Trump has expertly capitalized on the pervasive idea that ethnic diversity is inherently dangerous. Recent research confirms that his white supporters respond to reminders about changing ethnic demographics with heightened concern about the status of their ethnic group, increasing support for Trump and anti-immigrant policies.
Trump is not alone here. He is one of several current world leaders to recognize and exploit the mobilizing potential of ethnic insecurity. Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has fueled fears of immigration by claiming that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.” In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front and one of the front-runners for the next French presidential election, has also linked immigration to national security. Similar rhetoric is becoming increasingly common among right-wing European politicians, from the Netherlands to Austria and Sweden.
But just how dangerous is diversity, really? Whom and what — if anything — does it threaten? To answer this and other questions about the relationship between ethnic diversity and violent conflict, we assembled 16 scholars and asked them to evaluate the state of our knowledge about the relationship between ethnic diversity and conflict.
Notably, not a single one of these scholars suggested that diversity in and of itself increases the threat of conflict. In fact, several — including Henry Hale, Patrick James and Cyrus Mohammadian, Anita Gohdes, Idean Salehyan and David Carment — lamented the pervasive idea that diversity causes conflict and noted that ethnic peace is actually the norm across diverse societies. Authors also suggested that the occurrence of ethnopolitical conflict has, in fact, decreased since the end of the Cold War and that more effort now be devoted to end ethnopolitical conflict where it does occur.
So what do we think we do know about ethnicity and the correlates of ethnic conflict? First, the scholars contributing to our volume agreed that while ethnic labels may trace their origin to some real ascriptive differences such as color of skin and/or differences in language or religion, label boundaries are complex, fluid and highly subject to political manipulation. In fact, recent research also suggests that ethnic labels may be applied to warring factions only after conflict has been initiated. In other words, “ethnic” wars may have causes other than underlying diversity.
Where there is ethnic conflict, according to contributors, researchers point to the importance of group size and geographic concentration, overlapping cleavages such as race and religion, the presence of unifying ethnic myths and narratives, and conflict recurrence over time. Some important political variables enter this relationship as well, including the history of regional autonomy, ethnic political exclusion and marginalization, ethnic divides overlapping with power relationships as well as the strength of state institutions. Important economic factors associated with conflict include competition over resources, poverty and inequality.
Immigrants in the United States hail from every country in the world and are distributed all over the country. They are culturally divergent and crosscut by many different cleavages. For example, while Mexicans and Cubans share a language, they have very distinct cultural and political histories and tend to migrate to different parts of the country. Similarly, while sharing a faith, Muslim immigrants to the United States from Pakistan and Somalia differ in race, language and customs. Given the wide geographic distribution of immigrants, their internal diversity, and absence of any unifying myths or autonomy, the research discussed in our volume would suggest it is exceedingly unlikely that the predominantly nonwhite American immigrant communities or immigrant communities across Europe will instigate ethnic conflict in the immediate future. This is especially true for immigrants who have migrated to seek greater economic opportunities compared with those found in their home countries. As the authors in our volume note, important economic factors associated with conflict include the poverty and inequality many immigrants seek to escape when migrating away from their home countries.
In contrast, the geographic concentration, overlapping cleavages of race and religion, perceived poverty and inequality in competition over resources, among white Trump voters reflect those conditions associated with conflict. It is, perhaps, not surprising that hate crimes against ethnic minorities rose sharply after the U.S. election. Even so, American institutions are strong — a condition the authors of our volume associate with reduced danger of ethnic conflict. Therefore, it is, perhaps, not surprising that hate crime incidents continue to decline the further we get from the election.
More research is needed to further illuminate the causes of ethnic conflict where it occurs, but the assessment of the scholars contributing to the volume is clear — diversity is not inherently dangerous.
Jóhanna Kristín Birnir is an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. Christian Davenport is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Erika Forsberg is a senior lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. This blog post builds on a special issue recently published by Ethnopolitics (Vol 16, issue 1).