Some observers assume that demographics are political destiny. In this view, since all people of color presumably think alike, their political views are surely unified, cohesive and unvarying. If true, demographic diversification means that people of color will become the new dominant force in U.S. politics.
My research shows this concept rests on unrealistic assumptions about people of color, a large and diverse group who are not necessarily natural political allies. To understand how they may influence American politics, we must first appreciate how they view our civic landscape.
Different groups, different histories, different stations in life
On average, it’s true that people of color experience many inequities when compared with Whites. But these disparities are as diverse as people of color themselves, who differ appreciably in how they arrived to the United States, how they are treated by American society and what political priorities they hold.
To bring some order to this wild variation in experiences, Linda X. Zou and Sapna Cheryan, two leading social psychologists, have found that most people of color in the United States are fundamentally marginalized along two dimensions: How inferior or superior and how foreign or American they are considered to be.
As you can see in the figure above, White people are socially positioned as the most superior and American racial group. They remain the predominant racial group, despite their slow demographic decline. In contrast, while Black and Latino individuals are both stereotyped as inferior with respect to White people, Black people are considered a more American minority than Latinos and Asians. And although Asian Americans and Latinos are both stereotyped as foreigners, Asian individuals are considered more superior than both Latinos and Black people, as reflected in the “model minority” myth — the notion that Asians are smarter, economically better off and less impertinent than other people of color.
Of course, these stereotypical views treat each group in oversimplified and highly generalized ways. But by doing so, they help all Americans gain a rough, but useful, sense of where they — and their groups — fit within the changing landscape of U.S. race relations.
From solidarity to political unity
But if you look closely at the figure, you may notice something more profound. While the differences between people of color along these axes jump out, it is also the case that some non-White people share common forms of marginalization. For example, Latinos might not be considered as American as Black individuals are, yet both groups are deemed inferior and low-status. In turn, although Asian Americans are viewed as a socioeconomically superior group compared with Latinos, both Asians and Latinos are marginalized as un-American and foreign.
This shared sense of marginalization can lead some Asians, Latinos and members of other groups to think of themselves as people of color, feeling a greater sense of racial solidarity with other non-Whites.
In recent research, I found that a greater sense of solidarity among people of color leads many African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos to support policies that would be useful for one of those subgroups, even if it is not relevant to their own. For instance, when thinking of themselves as “people of color,” they are more likely to support #BlackLivesMatter (a Black issue); a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants (a Latino issue); and more H1-B visas for high-skilled immigrants (an Asian American issue).
This sense of solidarity with people of color can be sparked by reminding non-Whites about what they hold in common. In spring 2021, my research team and I undertook two online experiments, one with 641 Asian American adults and another with 624 Latino adults, recruited through Dynata’s online platform, with each sample matching the distributions of gender, education and age in each population.
We divided each group into two. Asian Americans and Latinos in the control group read an article about the gradual extinction of giant tortoises. The rest read about a group being treated as foreign and un-American, much as happens to members of their own community. Asian Americans read about Latinos, and vice versa. We then asked all participants whether the problems that African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos face are too different for them to be allies; whether they supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and whether they supported more H1-B visas for highly skilled immigrants.
Among those who read about tortoises, Asian Americans were nearly 9 percent less likely than Latinos to support a pathway to citizenship. But when we reminded them of their shared experience of being treated as foreigners, not only did that gap disappear, but both groups become substantially more likely to support such policies.
Similarly, when Latinos read about tortoises, they were about 6 percent less likely than Asian Americans to support more generous policies toward highly skilled immigrants (e.g., increasing number of H1-B visas). But after reading about another group marginalized as foreign, the gap again disappeared, and both Asians and Latinos become more likely to support such policies.
In ongoing work, my lab has found this dynamic among other non-White groups that are less high-profile, including Middle Eastern and North African individuals.
Solidarity takes work
Efrén Pérez (@EfrenPoliPsy) is a professor of political science and psychology at UCLA, where he is director of the Race, Ethnicity, Politics & Society Lab, and author of “Diversity’s Child: People of Color and the Politics of Identity” (University of Chicago Press, 2021).