The Racial and Economic Context of Trump Support

April 2, 2018

The video presentation above outlines a new study by Russell Sage Foundation visiting scholar Linda Tropp (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and Eric Knowles (New York University) that investigates how racial threat and interracial contact contributed to white Americans’ support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The study appears in the latest issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science

Because Trump's campaign expressed open hostility toward immigrants and attracted the support of the far right, many commentators concluded that his electoral victory was driven primarily by white racial resentment. Indeed, research has shown that increased racial diversity in areas where whites live can lead to feelings of racial threat among those whites—or the perception that minorities are affecting their economic prospects or way of life. Surveys have also suggested that the more whites felt a sense of racial threat, the more likely they were to support Trump in the election. Yet, as Tropp and Knowles note, because diverse neighborhoods also provide opportunities for interactions between individuals of different racial backgrounds—and such interactions tend to lead to reduced feelings of racial threat among whites—it's not entirely clear how much support for Trump was sparked by changing demographics. What other factors might affect the way whites view increased diversity in their neighborhoods?

To investigate how diversity could influence whites’ support for Trump, Tropp and Knowles conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,700 non-Hispanic whites in February 2016. They assessed respondents’ levels of racial threat (for example, how likely they were to agree that more good jobs for racial minorities meant fewer good jobs for whites), respondents’ white identification (how important they thought being white was to their identity), and respondents’ intergroup contact (how often they interacted with blacks, Latinos, and Asians). Using Census data to estimate levels of diversity and white unemployment rates in the respondents’ neighborhoods, the authors found that racial diversity was more strongly linked to greater perceptions of racial threat in areas where there were higher rates of white unemployment. “At low rates of white unemployment,” the authors write, “the neighborhood diversity–group threat association was no longer significant.” In other words, it wasn’t simply increased diversity in and of itself that led to feelings of resentment among whites during the 2016 election. Rather, economic conditions also played an important role in determining whether whites perceived racial threat. “If we really wish to alleviate whites’ feelings of racial threat,” Tropp notes, “it probably makes more sense for us to focus on improving their economic conditions and prospects than seeking to minimize diversity.”

Read Tropp and Knowles' report from Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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