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A Threat to Us All: White Fear of a Browner America Is Dangerous

This article originally appeared in Ebony on June 25, 2015.

By Jennifer Richeson

With funerals scheduled in the coming days for many of the nine Black people murdered at the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, it is necessary to reflect on the possibilities that led to such a massacre. 

Confessed shooter Dylann Roof is reported to have said that he was killing the worshippers in attendance because, “You are raping our women and taking over the country.” As the background of this young man continues to come out, revealing his affinity with white supremacist ideologies, it is easy to write off these words as the reactions of a deranged extremist.  But the findings of recent social science research suggest such a dismissal would be a mistake.

As we’ve seen in statistics repeatedly over the past several years, our nation is rapidly diversifying. Census Bureau projections indicate that non-Hispanic whites will cease to be more than 50 percent of the nation’s population by 2060.  While these projections and reports are meant to be benign descriptions of how our nation is changing, to many including this Mr. Roof it seems, this demographic change is experienced as a threat.
Indeed, much like Roof’s haunting words, psychological science has found that reminding White Americans that the nation is projected to become a so-called “majority–minority” country leads to the expression of greater racial bias. 

Specifically, in a series experiments published last year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Ohio State University social psychologist Maureen Craig and I found that White Americans reported a greater preference for same-race contact and more negative evaluations of racial minorities after they had read an article about the projected racial shift. 

Similar findings have emerged in research examining the reactions of White Canadians to comparable national demographic changes and, as in our studies, this research suggests that concerns about white Americans potentially losing status in society predicted the extent to which the research participants expressed greater racial bias. 

Research from other social scientists reveals comparable outcomes.  Work by UCLA social psychologists, for instance, finds that exposure to these changing national racial demographics fuels concerns that “white” will no longer reflect the prototypical American and, in turn, reduces comfort with national diversity and increases support for assimilation.

Additionally, in a recent study with 149 White U.S. citizens, results show that exposure to this “racial shift” information also increases concern Whites express about anti-White racial discrimination in society. The study also shows their support for workplace policies designed to benefit other white Americans.

In another series of studies published in Psychological Science, we found that exposure to these projected racial demographic changes leads White Americans to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly. Those positions include --perhaps not surprisingly--- policies that are relevant to the race, such as Affirmative Action and immigration policies.
Taken together, this research points to more general effects of the seemingly benign information that we often encounter in the media regarding our nation’s shifting racial/ethnic demographics.

For a far broader swath of society than White supremacists, the rapid changes in our nation’s racial makeup is threatening to many. As decades of social science has shown such perceived threat often undergirds racial animus. 

Interestingly, one of the demonstrated ways to reduce these threat reactions is by reflecting on one’s purpose in life. Ironically, this is the very type of reflection that often takes place in houses of worship.
To be sure, Dylann Roof is a racist who was motivated to murder nine Black worshippers and exact terror in the larger community.

But, this emerging body of research suggests a hard truth that at least some of his sentiments (or the seeds of them) are  likely taking root in a far greater number of people. 

No, these folks are not likely to enact this type of violent terror, but they are likely to engage in small, yet meaningful, acts—including patterns of voting— that maintain racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and places of employment. All of these acts serve to sustain racial disparities in health, wealth and overall well-being. 

These smaller seeds of racially-tinged discontent-- if not resentment-- in response to our rapidly diversifying nation should worry us all.

-Jennifer Richeson is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.