A Group Among Many: Investigating the Impact of Changing National Demographics on White Identity and Intergroup Relations

Project Date:
Feb 2014
Award Amount:
$153,956
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Much of the existing research on inter-group conflict has focused on the causes and consequences of bias and discrimination of ethnic and racial minorities by majority white groups. Scholars have paid comparatively less attention to how changes in dominant-group members’ perceptions about their in-group, and the in-group’s position in society, affect inter-group behavior and policy preferences. Yet the rise of, for example, the Tea Party in the U.S., and ultra-right and nativist parties in Western European countries that pride themselves on their liberal sensibilities, point to the emergence (or re-emergence) of racial concerns and racial ideology in politics.

Social psychologist Eric Knowles aims to shed empirical light on the role of race and racial ideology in political behavior. In a recent study, Knowles (with collaborators at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania) found suggestive evidence that racial concerns played a role in support for Tea Party groups. Respondents in a small longitudinal survey of white adults showed that many subscribed to the idea that the nation is in decline, which in turn drew them to the Tea Party. Interestingly, the study found that whites that strongly identified with the Tea Party movement became more concerned with their racial identity over time—that is, although they may have joined the movement for race-neutral reasons, such as libertarianism or social conservatism, joining the Tea Party made being white more important to its members as a result of their group affiliation. These findings have implications for how we think about race, dominant racial group identity, and political choices.

Knowles will document the claims that exposure to demographic diversity reinforces in-group (white) identity, with significant (presumably negative) consequences for inter-group relations. He argues that, in order to understand the complex impact of demographic changes on white Americans’ inter-group attitudes, it is necessary to account for the effects of diversity on whites’ conception of their own racial status. According to this view, changes in white identity represent an important mediating mechanism between the experience of diversity and its effects. Knowles hypothesizes that increasing racial and ethnic diversity transforms whiteness from an identity often unnoticed by those who possess it into “one as subjectively ‘real’ as any other.”

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