Skip to main content

Regional Immigration, Local Segregation: The Toxic Mix That Triggers Whites' Fears

New research suggests neighborhood-level diversity can reduce perceived threat, but regional diversity has the opposite effect.
Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, on May 10th, 2018.

Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, on May 10th, 2018.

As ethnic diversity increases, many whites feel increasingly more threatened. As Ezra Klein details in a comprehensive new article, the impact of that dynamic cannot be overstated; it is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, as well as the Brexit vote in Britain.

Understanding when and why it is triggered is an urgent priority. In a new meta-study that utilizes an impressive four million data points, a pair of British political scientists provides some valuable answers.

Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College, University of London, and Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent report panic and prejudice proliferate when demographic change comes to one's city or county. But the perceived threat actually decreases when it occurs on a neighborhood level—a situation that allows residents to meet and befriend people from various ethnic groups.

"Rising diversity, all else being equal, increases anti-immigration sentiment and support for the populist radical right among native-born whites in the West," they write in the journal Social Science Research. "This occurs despite powerful evidence that an established presence of local minorities fosters inter-ethnic contact."

Kaufmann and Goodwin analyzed data from 171 studies (the oldest from 1995), which averaged 25,000 observations apiece. Not surprisingly, they found "a linear association between ethnic change and elevated threat" among white natives.

They also picked up a striking pattern. Increased levels of threat were found when diversity increased on an extremely local level, or at the regional level (that is, in a metropolitan area of 50,000 to 500,000 people).

But when it occurred at what they describe as a neighborhood level—among the 5,000 to 10,000 people one comes in contact with at the shopping mall or regional park—threat levels, on average, declined.

What accounts for these different reactions? One plausible answer is "contact theory," which argues that interacting with people of other ethnicities on a regular basis can deflate stereotypes and calm fears.

But its effects as a counterweight, while real, are limited. The researchers note that "larger geographical units such as counties, states, or nations are where economic and political contestation takes place. By contrast, one is unlikely to perceive oneself as competing with a neighbor for jobs or political power."

So Fred down the block may be a great guy, but that doesn't assuage Jim's concern that more and more minorities are competing with him for political and economic power in his city, county, or state.

"Local contact is not sufficient to shift national threat levels," the researchers conclude, "perhaps because a large share of native-born white citizens have limited opportunities to experience positive contact due to ethnic residential segregation." The researchers note that, "in England and Wales in 2011, three-quarters of wards averaged just 6 percent nonwhite."

On a residential level, America remains similarly segregated. As a result, we find ourselves living in a corrosive combination of circumstances: We are acutely aware of change on the regional level (which spurs fear), but experience little or no actual contact with members of ethnic minorities (which allays fear).

Kaufmann and Goodwin can envision a more hopeful future. "Minorities could become better established (in more neighborhoods), increasing positive contact with whites," they write. "Integration and intermarriage may dampen the pace of cultural change. New cohorts should grow up with higher levels of diversity, raising tolerance thresholds."

That said, the population is aging, and some research "suggests that people may become more conservative on immigration as they age," they add. If that proves true, the generational split seen on so many issues will become still wider, leading to increasingly divisive, racially charged political battles.

Avoiding that bleak future will be difficult, but it will help if we stop self-segregating.