When White individuals feel that their identity is being threatened, it makes them feel more strongly about their White identity. This, in turn, influences their views on various policies, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Specifically, they tend to be more against policies that benefit groups outside of their own (such as providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants) and they show stronger support for policies that benefit their own racial group.
The researchers conducted this study to better understand the threats to White identity in the United States as the country becomes more racially diverse. They wanted to investigate the factors that contribute to Whites feeling threatened and how these threats may affect their socio-political attitudes.
“What drives my interest in this topic is three-fold,” explained study author Efrén Pérez, a professor at UCLA and director of the Race, Ethnicity, Politics & Society Lab. “The first is the incredible amount of heterogeneity in the racial group, White. We often take this group as a unitary actor — that the group is always cohesive. But the composition of this ingroup, its norms, attitudes, and behaviors are a function of context. And a key aspect of that context is mass politics.”
“Second, White people prevail in each political party in the U.S., but the composition of each one differs dramatically, with Democrats being more racially diverse than Republicans. Social psychology teaches us that this diversity can have (un)expected consequences for group members, so I thought it natural to extend some of this important work to the realm of partisan polarization (my formal training is in political science).”
To conduct the study, the researchers recruited a sample of 4,000 White individuals, including 2,000 Democrats and 2,000 Republicans, through YouGov. The participants were selected based on their self-identified political affiliation and demographic characteristics such as gender, age, and education.
The participants were then assigned to read either a control news brief about the extinction of giant tortoises or one of four treatment articles that manipulated different threats to White identity. These threats included distinctiveness threat, power threat, morality threat, and meritocratic threat. The articles were designed to evoke specific feelings and perceptions related to each threat.
For example, the article in the distinctiveness condition stated that there has been “a noticeable shift in what real Americans look like, the languages they speak, the foods they eat, the traditions they keep, and the sports they play,” while in the power condition the article stated that “people of color are now a demographic majority, with Whites as a minority” and that this “demographic change is producing a slow, but noticeable shift in the center of gravity in politics, the economy, and society.”
After reading the articles, the participants completed a series of questions to measure their White identity, including its centrality, pride in being White, recognition of commonality with other Whites, and consciousness about the group’s social position. These measures aimed to capture both cognitive and affective aspects of White identity.
Next, the participants were asked to indicate their support for various policy proposals related to Latino, Asian, and Black individuals. These proposals included policies on undocumented and high-skilled immigration, as well as affirmative action. The researchers used these policy preferences as indicators of the participants’ attitudes towards outgroups and ingroups.
The researchers found that the threats to White identity, as manipulated in the study, had significant effects on White participants’ identification with their racial group. Participants exposed to distinctiveness threat showed a 4% increase in White identity compared to the control group. Similarly, participants exposed to power threat showed a 3% increase in White identity. Participants exposed to meritocratic threat, highlighting unearned racial advantages for Whites, showed a 2% increase in White identity.
Contrary to expectations, participants who faced morality threat, linking White identity to White supremacist thinking, showed a slight decrease (1%) in White identity, although this effect was not statistically significant.
The researchers also found that heightened White identity was associated with reduced support for policies favoring outgroups, such as flexible policies toward undocumented immigrants and high-skilled immigrants. On the other hand, heightened White identity was associated with stronger support for pro-ingroup policies, specifically legacy college admissions.
The researchers also investigated the moderating role of partisanship. Threats to White identity had significant effects on White participants’ identification with their racial group, regardless of whether they identified as Democrats or Republicans.
“One surprising finding is that the various forms of threat that we analyzed appeared to operate identically among White Democrats and White Republicans — in short, the surprise was that White Republicans were not any more sensitive to these threats than White Democrats,” Pérez told PsyPost.
But when it comes to the impact of heightened White identity on policy preferences, the researchers found it had a much stronger effect on Democrats compared to Republicans.
“I think the bottom line is that some of the most normatively unappealing consequences of White identity emanate from corners of this population that we would least expect it from (i.e., White Democrats who inhabit a party that is vocally committed to racial diversity),” Pérez explained.
But why did racial identity threat have a stronger impact on White Democrats’ policy preferences compared to White Republicans? The researchers said a ceiling effect could be at play.
White Democrats had lower levels of racial identity compared to White Republicans in general. So, when their identity was threatened, their levels of racial identity had more room to increase. In contrast, White Republicans already had a higher baseline level of racial identity, so threats to their identity may not have as strong of an effect on their policy preferences.
“One major caveat is that our findings were produced by threats communicated in ‘mild’ form, i.e., via mock news articles,” Pérez noted. “More work is needed on various modalities of threat delivery. Another major caveat is that, while our findings are robust (and converge across several studies, if you count our previous article on this), more intricate research designs are needed to more confidently conclude that the downstream behavior of White Democrats is causal, indeed.”
The study, “Manifold Threats to White Identity and Their Political Effects on White Partisans“, was authored by Efrén Pérez, Jessica HyunJeong Lee, Ana Oaxaca, Tania Solano Cervantes, Jasmine García Rodríguez, Kimberly Lam, and David McFall.