Remember white people? Once upon a time, they dominated American life. But at some point in the 21st century, beset by low birth rates, they gradually died out.
Yes, that's an absurd notion. But new research suggests that, for some white Americans, it's a real fear—one that stimulates racial bias and political conservatism.
"White population decline does not merely trigger the threat considered in most studies of demographic change—that is, status threat," write University of Minnesota psychologists Hui Bai and Christopher Federico. "Our work suggests that it may additionally elicit fears that the in-group will actually cease to exist."
As the researchers note in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, it has been clear for some time that many white Americans feel threatened by projections that, by the year 2050, members of their racial identity will no longer make up a majority of the nation's population. Much research has found this is driven by fear of a loss of status—that whites will no longer play a dominant role in society.
In two studies, Bai and Federico tested how whites' views and behaviors are affected by that fear, and by two others: "collective symbolic threat," which they describe as worries about the white race "losing its unique identity and values," as its members assimilate into other cultures; and "collective existential threat," the fear that the race will eventually cease to exist.
One of the studies featured 526 participants, all whites, who were recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. They began by reading one of three fictitious news articles: One that described the global white population as declining, one that said it was growing, or a third that did not address the topic. (The first included such bogus statistics as, "The number of whites who died in 2016 outpaced the number of white births in 17 countries.")
Subjects then responded to a series of statements reflecting the three varieties of threat noted above. These included "The physical existence of my racial group is in danger" (existential threat); "If other racial groups increase in status, they are likely to reduce the influence of my racial group in society" (status threat); and, "My racial group's values will always be distinct from others ones" (collective symbolic threat).
Afterwards, researchers measured participants' levels of discomfort when interacting with people of different races and ethnicities, by noting their levels of agreement with statements such as: "I would rather work alongside people of my own ethnic group." Finally, participants gave their policy views on five hot-button issues, including universal health care, affirmative action, and immigration.
The key result: "Exposing white participants to [the idea of] white population decline led to a higher level of collective existential threat, but not the other types of threats," the researchers write. "Collective existential threat in turn led to more racial bias, and more conservative policy preferences."
In line with previous research, the team also found some evidence that shifting demographics led to an increased sense of status threat. But the relationship was marginal, which suggests that collective existential threat was the stronger driver of hardened political and racial views.
These results help explain why President Donald Trump continues to propose controversial responses to the issue of immigrants arriving at the southern border, such his recent announcement of tariffs on Mexican products.
That may seem like a panicked overreaction. But if being white is a major part of your personal identity, and you fear "your people" are facing an existential threat, it's entirely possible that no defensive measure would sound too extreme.