The Agenda

Racial Conflict and Non-Zero-Sum Mobility

Ryan Enos offers a provocative hypothesis:

As different groups come into contact, people often have adverse reactions, and this can cause them to vote for a party that represents opposition to other groups. In today’s electoral landscape, that might mean white Democrats would be more willing to vote Republican. There is some evidence that when most people vote against their party identification — perhaps as a Reagan Democrat, just once — they return to their regular partisan identity within an election or so. However, if people make that switch during their impressionable years, in their teens or 20s, it can last a long time. And if they become familiar with members of the other group on a personal level, then the initial aversion might diminish. For example, this might be why attitudes about same-sex marriage are changing — as more people come to know gay friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members.

Of course, people might change the way they vote for reasons other than the race or ethnicity of their neighbors, such as a change in their job or the birth of a child. However, these experiments tell us that, all else equal, contact between different groups, such as native whites and Latino immigrants, leads to more conservative voting.

Enos has tested the hypothesis in a number of ways, e.g.:

(1) Surveying Boston area commuters about their attitudes towards Latinos both before and after sending two Spanish-speaking Latino men. (“The results were clear. After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes.”)

(2) Evaluating how the political views of white Chicago residents living in close proximity to heavily-black housing projects changed after these housing projects were demolished and their residents migrated to other neighborhoods. (“Did that separation result in more liberal political views? Voting patterns among white residents living near these projects before and after their demolition showed that it did. After their African American neighbors left, fewer white residents turned out to vote, and voters became less likely to choose Republican candidates, whom they had previously supported at higher levels than had residents in other parts of the city. It seems that the contact with African Americans had politically mobilized whites in Chicago, similar to how Southern whites were mobilized in the 1930s.”)

(To state the obvious, (2) seems more vulnerable to an explanation from confounding variables than (1), as support for the GOP has eroded among white voters living in dense central cities for a while now, for any number of reasons.)

(3) Gauging support for Barack Obama among Latinos living in close proximity to African Americans as opposed to those who do not. (“In that same year, I examined the voting of Latinos in Los Angeles and found that those who lived near predominantly African American neighborhoods were far less likely to vote for Obama than Latinos who lived farther away — suggesting that contact with their African American neighbors may have prompted them to vote against an African American candidate.”)

Enos’s findings reminded me of the work of another scholar, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s 1998 book The Ordeal of IntegrationSpecifically, Patterson observed that whites living in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods were less likely to hold racist views than whites living in diverse neighborhoods. There are many reasons why this might be true, e.g., white Americans living in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods might be more educated and affluent than white Americans living in diverse environments, or white Americans living in diverse environments might experience more intergroup friction. 

My own view is that intergroup friction is not necessarily about racism as such. Rather, members of different cultural groups will often have different attitudes about, for example, child-rearing, the use of public space, and much else, and under conditions of scarcity, these different attitudes will sometimes fuel conflict. 

We’ve often discussed Robert Putnam’s finding that people living in neighborhoods defined by high levels of racial diversity tend to trust their neighbors far less than people living in homogeneous neighborhoods. We’ve also discussed the Glaeser-Alesina thesis in Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: racial homogeneity corresponds to a strong taste for redistribution while racial heterogeneity corresponds to a strong distaste for it. Both Putnam and Glaeser-Alesina lend credence to Enos’s findings.

But I’m struck by Enos’s conclusion:

Of course, people might change the way they vote for reasons other than the race or ethnicity of their neighbors, such as a change in their job or the birth of a child. However, these experiments tell us that, all else equal, contact between different groups, such as native whites and Latino immigrants, leads to more conservative voting.

During the Republican presidential primaries, Sean Trende observed that Republican primary voters in counties with large Latino populations tended to favor Mitt Romney while Republican primary voters in counties with large African-American populations tended to favor Newt Gingrich. One takeaway could be that contact between different groups does have an impact on voting — yet the impact is not unidirectional, and it depends on the nature of the intergroup friction. In some cases, friction might revolve around fears of violent crime; in others, parents of one group might resent the fact that the parents of another group drive their children too hard to succeed, thus turning local schools into punishingly competitive environments. The political reaction will presumably be different in case A vs. case B. 

None of these findings bode well for Democrats. As ethnic groups mix, voters become more exclusionary and tend to vote for more racially conservative candidates — which may make it more difficult to maintain a diverse Democratic Party and could tilt the field in favor of Republicans.

But such changes are not inevitable.

Just as demographic shifts do not guarantee a Democratic majority, it is not certain that interaction between groups will hurt Democrats. Social scientists have identified a host of conditions that foster political harmony between groups, including economic equality and common goals, such as being part of the same team in the workplace, school or the military. These are conditions that liberals typically favor through their legislative agenda.

One wonders if political harmony might also be fostered by efficient public services, lightly-regulated labor markets and other measures designed to facilitate labor force participation, low barriers to new firm entry, larger police forces, and measures like school choice that allow for the emergence of specialized instructional providers that might also reduce intergroup friction. Efficient public services might lead to more satisfaction with the quality of local government, thus dampening resentments that flow from conflicts over scarce goods. Lightly-regulated labor markets and measures like wage subsidies might lead people in group A to see people in group B as wage-earners who “earn their keep.” Shifting crime control resources from incarceration to crime prevention might mitigate intergroup friction that flows from concerns about crime. Specialized instructional providers might be better positioned to meet the needs of students from different ability levels and different needs in terms of supervision and discipline and remedial help. 

For example, a progressive tax code and liberal social spending are designed to promote economic equality. And immigration reform proposals, such as the Dream Act, are designed to more fully integrate institutions such as colleges and the military.

The recognition that liberals’ policies can not only establish their ideological goals but also help maintain their political majority should give Democrats greater urgency in their legislative efforts to promote equality.

There is a somewhat different view — the expansion of civil rights protections occurred during a period of robust economic growth, during which education and labor market opportunities were expanding so quickly that members of the dominant in-group (let’s say WASPs) were eager to facilitate upward mobility among the descendants of southern and eastern European immigrants. The sociologist Richard Alba has called this “non-zero-sum mobility,” as economic progress for the descendants of southern and eastern European immigrants did not entail material sacrifice on the part of Americans of northern European origin. Similarly, rapid economic growth led a non-trivial number of white voters to believe that facilitating uplift for black Americans would not harm their economic interests. This was far less true in earlier eras, when intergroup labor strife was arguably an indirect product of scarcity.

So if we’re concerned about intergroup friction — and not about whether Democrats will win elections in the future, or Republicans for that matter — it seems reasonable to suggest that we should pursue policies that will lead to robust economic growth, as robust economic growth will tend to unite Americans around “non-zero-sum mobility.” 

It is possible that sharply increasing public expenditures on existing public sector service providers, creating new public sector service providers organized along similar lines, and sharply increasing taxes on high-earners will lead to robust economic growth. It is also possible that this course of action will dampen economic growth, and that this will actually sharpen intergroup conflict — and that as the electorate grows more diverse, this will lead to more calls for populist measures like higher taxes on high-earners to finance social transfers, etc. 


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