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White Americans Shift Toward Conservative Policies When Confronted with a 'Majority-Minority'

Jennifer Richeson at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Ashley Gilleland / AAAS

When white Americans read reports that minorities will soon make up a majority of the U.S. population, their politics begin to lean right, according to research discussed Saturday at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

In her topical lecture, Northwestern University social psychologist Jennifer Richeson discussed her studies showing that census reports about a "majority-minority" America — expected sometime around the mid-2040s — increase racial bias and politically conservative thinking among white Americans.

In a series of experiments, Richeson and her colleagues tested whether news about the coming majority-minority affects racial attitudes and policy positions. Some people in the tests read census reports on the rising percentage of U.S. minorities, while others read reports about the same demographic change in other countries, or demographic reports without any reference to race.

Richeson said that white Americans who read about the U.S. racial shifts "showed greater evidence of racial bias toward these groups, negative emotions toward these groups, both toward Latinos and toward blacks," compared to those who read about race-neutral or international demographics.

Follow-up studies showed that white Americans who read about the U.S. demographic shift were also more likely than the others in the studies to agree with conservative policy positions on issues such as housing, immigration, and affirmative action.

"It's something about being informed about this majority-minority racial shift that's threatening," said Richeson, "that leads to the endorsement of greater conservative policy positions and of course political ideology."

The findings also add a wrinkle to the conventional political wisdom that Democrats will benefit at the expense of Republicans as the racial minority population grows in the United States, Richeson said.

Under the circumstances described in her studies, a larger percentage of white voters might begin to lean more Republican, if they are "primed" with information that their majority status will disappear.

"Interestingly, some of the Republicans seem to be deploying this strategy right now," Richeson said, with a nod to a slide she showed of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "Knowingly or not, they're playing on it."

The effects of learning about the demographic shift aren't confined to white Americans, Richeson noted. In some of her other studies, the census materials given to participants emphasized an expected rise in Latino populations in the U.S. These materials caused black and Asian-American participants in the study to adopt more conservative policy stances as well, although both groups started from a more liberal viewpoint than the white Americans in the studies. Latino participants, however, became more politically liberal in their thinking after reading the census reports.

Richeson, a 2006 Macarthur Foundation Fellow and recent Guggenheim recipient, said "the naïve expectation that increased racial diversity in the United States will result in greater tolerance is premature."

"If anything," she added, "it's likely to be associated with increased erosion of progressive race-related social policies."