A shopper in Boston's Jamaica Plain, which, like many urban neighborhoods, has experienced dramatic demographic shifts in recent decades.
A shopper in Boston's Jamaica Plain, which, like many urban neighborhoods, has experienced dramatic demographic shifts in recent decades. Brian Snyder/Reuters

The perception of demographic change can be more powerful than the reality of it, according to new research on how white residents can feel threatened by racial and ethnic shifts.

For most of its modern history, Old Brooklyn in Cleveland has been a working-class white neighborhood. But it’s changing. Over the last decade or so, it has become a destination for black and Hispanic families; Today, Cuban cafés and Guatemalan businesses are sprinkled among old-school coffeeshops and Polish restaurants. Some longtime residents are happy to see new energy injected into the neighborhood. But others have been wary of newcomers—in part, because of their race.

Jeffrey T. Verespej, the executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, which has been working to revitalize the neighborhood, tries to assuage the anxiety of these residents by contextualizing that change. “We have this phrase: ‘Old Brooklyn has always been an aspirational neighborhood,’” he said. “Folks have always moved to Old Brooklyn because it’s a land of opportunity; it’s just that now, the face of that aspiration has changed.”

In some way, the story of Old Brooklyn is the story of America, where research shows that many white Americans fear losing ground to immigrants and minority populations. Indeed, the narrative of “white extinction anxiety” is often cited in explanations for the rise of President Donald Trump, and resistance to diversity has been one consistent theme among defenders of his administration. “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently declared. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people—and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” (She later denied that her comments were about race.)

Now, a new paper by psychologists Maureen A. Craig at NYU and Jennifer C. Richeson at Yale University, adds to the growing body of research that helps explain what’s going on in the minds of white Americans when they see demographic change.

In their surveys, the researchers found that self-identified white respondents believed that minorities already made up a majority of the nation, even though that demographic milestone is still decades away (and may not actually pan out as projected). When white respondents perceived the share of non-white residents in the nation and in their cities to be higher, they tended to feel that they themselves were being discriminated against more. While the actual size of the non-white population in their neighborhood also went hand in hand with this attitude, that association was less strong.

Having diverse neighbors move in seems to have two effects on white Americans. It can affirm that their overestimation of the extent of demographic change happening in the country is correct, and therefore increase the threat they perceive. Or, by giving them opportunities to interact with people who don’t look like them, it can mitigate some of their fears. It’s also possible those effects may cancel each other out to some extent, Craig explains via email:

The extent to which white Americans think that racial minorities are a larger group more strongly predicts their concerns about whites’ racial treatment, compared with the actual presence of racial minorities. One possible reason for this comes from decades of theorizing [and] research suggesting that while thinking groups are larger is linked to feeling like those groups are threatening, if white individuals actually have positive interactions with minority group members in their neighborhoods, those interactions may ease intergroup tensions.

Another finding from the same study supports this theory. White people who lived in census tracts with a larger share of non-white residents were slightly more willing to support the belief that black people, in particular, face discrimination in America. That has echoes of previous research that has shown how supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign tended to be those who lived in areas with very small immigrant populations.

The implication here is twofold. On one hand, this stubborn perception gap helps explain why Trump’s victory and subsequent nativist policies have only aggravated the rhetoric around white anxiety—see, for one recent example, Tucker Carlson’s attacks questioning the virtues of American diversity. But it also hints at a solution: contact.

While Cleveland, like many cities across America, is quite segregated overall, neighborhoods like Old Brooklyn represent pockets of growing racial and ethnic variety. “We’re organically diverse, even though we’re not intentionally inclusive,” said Verespej, who believes that the demographic changes in his area have taken place across income strata and geography.

It’s not a fix for institutional discrimination, but the rubbing of the shoulders at the store and mingling of parents and children at school can make a difference, he said: “I’d like to think, and I can say anecdotally, that I hear from residents a different tone from what one would expect based off social media and cable news.”

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