When the Majority Becomes the Minority

Racial demographics and its alarming effects on political behavior.

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The United States is undergoing a demographic shift.

In 2012, the Census Bureau that nonwhite births outpaced white births for the very first time. A year later, they that more whites were dying than were being born. A year after that, the Census Bureau that whites would be a minority by the year 2044.

There are caveats to this data and its accompanying alarmist headlines. First, while whites will be a minority of the population, they will still be the largest single ethnicity. Second, the methodology of gathering racial data , particularly what constitutes certain races and how multiracial people self-report their racial identity. Last, the projections for future immigration levels are just that — projections.

Regardless, the impending racial changes facing the United States seem inevitable. The research that a person’s own race, when in the majority, is often dormant, but when learning of impending minority status, his or her view of race becomes salient and even weaponized.

A pair of political scientists, Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, have studied the effects of impending minority status on white’s political behavior. They took hundreds of politically unaffiliated whites and split them into two groups. One group was shown a story of California becoming a majority-minority state, and the other group was shown a race neutral story. The respondents were then surveyed about their political beliefs, including whether they leaned more towards Republicans or Democrats.

The group that was shown the story of California becoming a majority-minority state were three times more likely to express conservative viewpoints or lean towards the Republican Party than the group that was shown a race neutral story.

“These results are consistent with the hypothesis that salience of the majority-minority racial shift leads White Americans to endorse conservative political ideology,” .

That hypothesis is known as “conservative shift,” which the authors describe as movement towards conservatism after individuals “perceive or experience threatening events.” In this specific example, conservative shift occurred after viewing a story about whites losing majority status. Interestingly enough, the psychological phenomenon has also been clinically observed in other situations, including in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and mortality salience (learning of one’s impending death).

Conservative shift doesn’t just entail race-related issues like affirmative action or immigration, either. In a , Richeson and Craig discovered that after providing groups with census data, respondents were more likely to express conservative views on non-racial issues like defense spending, the environment, and health care reform.

Richeson and Craig were able to isolate the cause for conservative shift. In an experiment where subjects were exposed to data showing impending white minority status, respondents were then instructed that whites would maintain economic and cultural power. Under this set up, conservative shift evaporated, becoming statistically insignificant.

While white minority status is near-future fact, conservative shift is not a novel phenomenon. Researchers decades ago that the larger the percentages of blacks in a local Church were, the greater the percentage of whites who were registered as Republicans were.

While political scientists are able to demonstrate this effect with consistency, solutions are harder to come by.

It’s possible that Gordon Allport’s “contact hypothesis,” first developed in the 1950s, could produce a more harmonious society. Assuming two separate groups, including racial groups, share a common goal, Allport demonstrated how just coming into contact with the outward group can promote tolerance. A of over 500 studies supports Allport’s theory. Frequent contact is enough to reduce animus.

Secondly, just as a fear-creating stimulus can create a conservative shift, the opposite also appears to be true. Psychologists have removed fear from subjects and noticed a leftward political shift, especially on social issues.

, Yale psychologists instructed a group to imagine they were hypothetically invincible like Superman. Next, the respondents were given a list of political statements. Researchers discovered that previously liberal subjects remained liberal, but a sizable amount of conservative subjects supported liberal positions with their new invincibility.

But perhaps most importantly, we must remember that America is not an ethno-state based on race, but an experiment based on ideals. To welcome a more tolerant, inclusive future, we must forgo our out-group hostility and remember what binds us together as Americans.

Our very future depends on it.

Written by

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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