The past few years have seen a significant uptick in the popularity of anti-immigration policies in Western industrialized countries, ranging from the building of a border wall and the separation/deportation of families under the Trump administration to the outcome of the Brexit vote in the U.K. The popularity of these movements have commonly been attributed to disaffected whites who feel threatened by a rise in ethnic diversity in the Western world. However, it is still an open question to what extent rising ethnic diversity has an effect on feelings of fear and threat felt by whites.
Previous research on the matter seems conflicting. According to proponents of “contact theory,” rising ethnic diversity in majority white communities will lead to less racial animus. The reasoning behind the theory is that when whites get to meet and know members of ethnic minorities on a personal and community level, they will develop more positive views of members of that ethnic minority. Some studies seem to support the opposite conclusion though; that increased ethnic diversity increases feelings of threat and distrust amongst whites. Some studies also seem to imply that the more conservative a population is, the more likely they are to respond negatively to outsiders and those who hold differing political opinions.
The prominence of conflicting data on the matter has led to a lack of clarity on the relationship between ethnic diversity and feelings of fear and resentment from whites. A recent study published in the journal Social Science Research provides evidence that both of these theories have truth in them: the determining factor is the size of the community. The study, a meta-analysis of over 171 individual studies conducted since 1995, found that for small communities, contact with ethnic minorities tends to lessen feelings of threat and distrust, while for larger communities, contact seems to elevate feelings of threat and distrust. These results suggest that increasing diversity alone does not make whites more fearful but that the size of a community interacts with rising ethnic diversity to produce feelings of threat.
White Fear And Population Size
Most previous studies on the matter have not accounted for the potential effects of population size. The meta-analysis divided up the 171 studies by characteristics including the geographic size of the area under observation. Doing so helped tease out relationships in the data that were previously unseen. Overall, the meta-analysis found that the relationship between population size and level of threat felt by whites was non-linear and took the mathematical form of a cubic polynomial; a wave-like pattern with two inflection points. They found that in smaller communities consisting of around 5,000-10,000 people, increasing ethnic diversity was associated with decreased perception of threat from native-born whites. However, studies looking at the effects of increased ethnic diversity in large population areas consisting of 50,000 to 500,000 people showed that as ethnic diversity rises, whites report greater feelings of threat and voice more support for anti-immigration policies.
There are a number of possible explanations for this data. According to the results, populations between 5,000-10,000 people showed the greatest reduction in perceptions of threat in the face of rising ethnic diversity. Contact theory may be true for smaller communities as those are the kind of communities in which people are more likely to form close personal relationships with their neighbors. Alternatively, larger geographic areas tend to have more social stratification, which could result in less interethnic contact. These explanations are speculative though, as the data alone cannot provide a definitive answer as to what is causing the results.
Aside from the main observation that the relationship between ethnic diversity and perceptions of threat amongst whites is non-linear, the meta-analysis found that it is likely threat effects are greater than contact effects. The study found that statistically significant associations between ethnic diversity and perceptions of threat tend to be positive rather than negative. In other words, in small and large populations, increased ethnic diversity elevates feelings of threats at a greater rate than the rate at which increased ethnic diversity decreases perceptions of fear in mid-sized communities. While the relationship between population size and perceptions of threat is not linear, the relationship between population size and proportion of significant positive associations between ethnic diversity and perceptions of threat is linear.
These findings have important implications for current debates on immigration. Most notably, the study seems to imply that in larger metropolitan areas, simply being in close proximity to ethnic minorities may not be sufficient to reduce perceptions of threat among whites. The authors speculate that this may be a result of aspects of political life that are more pronounced in areas of larger populations. Larger units and regions may contribute more to a person’s sense of existential security, and nation-states frequently cultivate stronger emotional attachment to cultural myths and symbols than small locales do.
All of this is to say that change in ethnic makeup at the national level may be perceived very differently than change in ethnic makeup at the local level. Ethnic change at a local level may not raise much alarm for whites, but ethnic change at a national level may be viewed as an existential threat, as it subverts deeply held beliefs and convictions about national identity. For example, the authors point to studies performed in the UK that show respondents who are otherwise lax about local immigration nevertheless express great concern about immigration at a national level. A potential explanation is that white Britons’ perceive their local identity differently than their national identity, so while ethnic change may not upset any understanding of their local identity, it does upset aspects of their national identity,
In a nation where debates on immigration are of national daily concern and there is growing acceptance of radical far-right ideologies, now more than ever is needed a solid understanding of the effect of increasing ethnic diversity on whites’ perceptions of threat. There is a substantial amount of evidence that direct inter-ethnic contact in small and local situations reinforces a positive perception of those ethnic groups, so the question seems to be how to maintain the benefits of interethnic contact on local levels while dispelling concerns at a national level that are based on irrational fear and distrust.