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When Latino immigration rises, Whites view Black Americans more warmly

A new study reveals a zero-sum dynamic in how White Americans view members of minority groups

Jennifer, a 6-year-old unaccompanied migrant from Honduras, waits to be processed by border agents in Roma, Tex., on April 7 after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
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Social scientists have observed that as immigrant groups grow in size, prejudice toward them often increases. Studies have established, for example, that in areas of the United States where immigration from Mexico has climbed, White Americans have tended to view Latinos more negatively — buying into a narrative about a “Latino invasion.” But how does the rising prominence of one disfavored group affect the standing of other minority groups?

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. Over that period, hostility toward Latinos rose while hostility toward Black Americans decreased. The effect appears 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 boundaries of social groups in diverse societies are not fixed: What divides “us” from “them” changes depending on the context. And the interactions can be complex: Notably, as the number of Hispanics rose, 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 is because White Americans viewed Asian Americans and Muslim Americans as more “foreign” than Black Americans.

For our research project, we compared changes in the share of the Mexican-born population across U.S. states, counties and census tracts from 1970 to 2010. We measured prejudice toward various racial or ethnic groups using data from several representative surveys of American social attitudes, taking an especially close look at a “feeling thermometer,” a question asked in repeated waves of the American National Election Study (ANES). The survey asked respondents how warmly they felt toward each group, on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher numbers reflecting more positive feelings. For the states and counties with the smallest change in Mexican immigration between 1970 and 2010, the thermometer ratings of Black people by White people stayed the same — or even decreased a little.

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But in parts of the United States that experienced larger increases in the population share of Mexican immigrants, we found that White Americans over time rated Black Americans more warmly on the feeling 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 fellow citizens on the feeling thermometer rose by three points, from 61 to 64, from 1970 to 2010.)

Over the period studied, White Americans consistently viewed Hispanics more negatively than African Americans: White respondents’ feeling-thermometer ratings for Hispanics were lower than those for African Americans in every year the ANES was conducted from 1976 to 2008. When areas experienced surges in Mexican immigration the gap in White attitudes toward the two groups widened.

As in all observational studies, we faced a key empirical challenge in establishing causality. For example, Mexican immigrants might have settled in areas where Whites’ attitudes toward racial equality were becoming more liberal over time. This would be problematic, because we would be attributing to the inflow of Mexican immigrants 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 community is larger; we predicted the number of Mexican immigrants settling in a given U.S. area relying on the historical distribution of the Mexican population. As long as the historical distribution of Mexican enclaves was not related to future changes in Whites’ racial attitudes, this strategy allowed us to isolate the causal effect of immigration on Whites’ attitudes toward Black Americans.

To better understand the phenomenon we identified, we conducted an online survey experiment in which we primed roughly 500 White non-Hispanic respondents to think about the size of the Hispanic population in the United States, asking them to estimate the share of Hispanics in the country. (We did not correct their guesses; the point was simply to get them thinking about the subject.) In the 259-person control group, respondents were instead asked to estimate the average age of U.S. residents — a neutral subject. We then asked respondents to tell us how well they thought different attributes characterized ethnic and racial groups in the United States, including the degree to which they were “American.”

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Overall, the White respondents in our survey ranked Whites as most American, followed, with some distance, by African Americans. Hispanics and Asians were ranked next, with Muslims at the bottom.

Respondents who were primed to think about the size of the Hispanic population were significantly more likely to perceive Black Americans as “American.” No such change was observed for any of the other groups. This finding suggests that “immigrant” or “foreigner” is a distinct category in the minds of Americans. When immigration becomes salient, immigrants are cast as the primary out-group and prejudice is directed against them. This diverts prejudice away from other discriminated groups.

This study is not the only evidence that prejudice is a finite resource, distributed by Whites across racial and ethnic groups in ways that shift over time. In the early 20th century, the migration of Black Southerners to cities of the Northeast and Midwest served to divert White Americans’ prejudice away from European immigrants, allowing Italians, Poles and Russian Jews to assimilate into Whiteness “on the backs of Blacks,” as Toni Morrison eloquently put it. More recent research demonstrates that a reduction in anti-Muslim hatred after Donald Trump’s rhetoric subsided was accompanied by rising antisemitism in online media. Far-right groups that targeted Muslims appear to have partly shifted their attention to Jews.

Our results have implications for the future of group relations in the United States. Diversity and rapid demographic change mean the boundaries of “us” and “them” are constantly shifting. Increases in the size or salience of one group can change the position of all other groups. The bleak takeaway is that while relative rankings change, group hierarchies endure.