Out of Many, Many

By John Wahala on November 2, 2015

Democrat pollster Cornell Belcher recently discussed racial division in America as part of his Harvard study group on the fractured electorate:

How do we win the future when we are so segregated and continue to be increasingly segregated in our politics and voting patterns and are becoming more tribal at the level of voting? ... If we don't fix this and our politics continue to be even more segregated and more polarized as the demographics of our country continue to change ... I think you will see our politics, our legislative bodies come to a complete halt, more so than they already have, if we don't solve for this problem, if we can't solve for the tribalism in our politics and be one big tribe and not several separate, smaller tribes.

The tribalism that Belcher describes is a complicated and troubling phenomenon that is exacerbated by mass immigration. The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented demographic transformation that began with passage of the 1965 immigration act. Since 1970, the Hispanic population has grown 592 percent, from less than 5 percent of the population to nearly 20 percent today. In 50 years, the foreign-born population is projected to reach nearly 80 million, with the largest share arriving from Asia. Before mid-century the country is projected to be majority-minority, with no racial or ethnic group accounting for 50 percent of the population. By 2065, roughly one in three Americans is expected to be an immigrant or have immigrant parents. The black/white paradigm that defined race relations for most of the nation's history is no longer an effective way of looking at American demographics.

Reporting on this vast social change focuses on how the two major political parties will court the rapidly changing electorate. The typical assumption is that voters of color will form a progressive alliance within the Democratic Party to challenge a predominately white and more conservative Republican coalition and that Republicans will be forced to moderate their positions if they wish to stay relevant. Cogent analysis suggests that this assumption is correct. Liberal members of the media are careful not to point out any downside to this trend.

Their rosy picture, however, is contradicted by historical example and by academics who look more closely into the effects of dramatic demographic change. Various studies have concluded that mass immigration increases segregation not only in the electorate, but in society in general, eroding social cohesion and intensifying distrust. In a recent journal article, Princeton sociologist Maria Abascal explores how Hispanic growth will affect black-white relations in the United States. Her final theoretical model is an optimistic one: "a more colorful and inclusive United States where race/ethnicity is no longer a consequential axis of social division". But, tellingly, she notes that "no scholars have predicted such a future".

Abascal uses behavioral game and survey methods to evaluate how large-scale Hispanic growth affects the generosity of Americans and their racial and national identities. Her original experiment was a version of the dictator game conducted with 100 white and 48 black participants who were divided into control and treatment groups. Those in the control group read about iPhone market share growth while those in the treatment group read an article on Hispanic population growth. Participants were then given 10 one-dollar bills and two envelopes, one addressed to themselves and one to a person selected from whitepages.com with a racially distinctive name. They were told to divide the bills how they wished and that what they gave away would come from their compensation for participating in the study. Finally, participants completed a survey with demographic and attitudinal questions.

Abascal carefully sought to avoid bias in her results. She selected non-student participants, since it has been shown that college kids are more likely to be aware of norms against expressing prejudice, and she conducted the study in central New Jersey, where the share of Hispanic residents is comparable to the share in the country overall. She controlled for possible gender prejudice and selected participants whose incomes were remarkably similar to the national average. She scrutinized the articles she presented to the participants, the names she put on their envelopes, and the survey they completed for anything that would skew the data. She tested the participants' reactions to the experimenters and made additional considerations to ensure the participants' privacy, as well as the credibility of the experiment.

Her results show that white participants who read about the growth of iPhone market share contributed similar amounts to both white and black recipients, whereas their black counterparts contributed significantly more to blacks. Abascal notes this is consistent with previous research that finds members of minority groups discriminate more than members of majority groups and that, as the dominant group, whites identify less with their race and more as Americans. Nearly two-thirds of the white participants in this group identified as American, while only 4 percent of blacks in this group did so. Interestingly, she notes that the experiment found that neither the white nor the black participants gave according to the perceived need of the recipients.

Participants who read about Hispanic population growth acted much differently. Whites gave significantly more to white recipients, whereas blacks gave comparable amounts to both white and black recipients. Only 41 percent of whites in this group identified as American — a 27 percentage-point drop from the control group who had not read about Hispanic growth. Conversely, 29 percent of blacks who read about Hispanic growth identified as American — 25 percentage points more than blacks who read about iPhone sales.

Abascal concludes that the participants' response to Hispanic population growth was motivated by a desire for self-protection. Study participants view the newcomers as possible usurpers and seek to distance themselves by prioritizing their most privileged identity. For whites this means distancing themselves from all non-whites and for blacks this means identifying as American. Both see their respective identities as ones that exclude Hispanic newcomers.

Studies like these should be interpreted with caution. But her findings point to a more balkanized future. Scholars have previously noted a reluctance among immigrants to fully identify as Americans. Abascal's research suggests that mass immigration also makes white Americans less likely to do so. As their share of the population continues to decline, they are more likely to behave like a minority group, adopting a less inclusive approach to those around them. Blacks are likely to respond to the demographic changes by seeking a political alliance with whites, but Abascal predicts that their efforts will fall flat because they will not be reciprocated and "the ability to impose one's vision of social division is reserved for those, like whites, who possess greater political, economic, and symbolic resources."

None of this is good for the preservation of a robust American national identity. And it is more troubling to contemplate the future of social cohesion when one considers that Abascal's research only deals with the response to large-scale Hispanic population growth, not the tens of millions of other immigrants that the United States is expected to welcome in the next few decades, many of whom will have starker religious and cultural differences.

Increasing balkanization, however, could be mitigated by various factors. As CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian explains in The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal, the definition of the majority population has greatly expanded over the years, from a designation that included only a certain variety of English Protestant to a far-reaching one that stretches well beyond the borders of Europe. The immigrants who comprised the Great Wave were not considered eligible for inclusion in the majority population, but their descendants today would have difficulty claiming any other label. A large portion of the Hispanic population already self-identifies as part of the majority population (i.e., "white") and that share could increase over time. Black Americans have always been excluded from this expanding majority, but growing rates of interracial marriage, among other things, suggest even that obstacle could be overcome.

Of course these mitigating factors depend on slowing the rate of immigration. Immigrants of the Great Wave and their descendants became Americans because immigration was shut down for nearly 40 years. That shutdown was the reason that immigration succeeded. Today, academics and politicians refuse to acknowledge that maintaining an American national identity — or as Belcher calls it "one big tribe" — cannot be accomplished in the face of continual demographic transformation. Mass immigration works against every ostensible goal of both the progressive and the conservative. It is the vehicle for a more polarized and fractured future that the academics themselves predict.