Racial Threat and Behavior

I was thinking about the potential impact of changing communities on party identification as I was walking home last night, and I realized that we might be able to settle for exposure to a different community, rather than reaching for a complete change. Immediately, I thought of Ryan Enos’s work on racial threat and political behavior.

The basic idea of “racial threat” is that white voters respond negatively to people of a different race from them, and that negative reaction informs their political behavior – turnout and vote choice.

In a 2014 experiment, Enos placed pairs of native Spanish speakers on the same Boston commuter rail platforms at the same time for ten days in a row. He paid the unsuspecting commuters, who were predominantly white, to take a web survey before the experiment started, and then after they’d had a few days of exposure to the Spanish speakers, and in those surveys, he asked for their preferences on immigration policies.

Cover of Enos Article
A photo of the experiment as it occurred. This seal thinks that English should be the official language of the United States.

Enos finds that people who waited on the platform – and thus were “treated” with exposure to Spanish speakers – are more likely to favor decreasing the number of immigrants from Mexico and to favor deportation for employed, non-criminal immigrants who are in the US illegally. However, he also finds that commuters who were exposed to Spanish speakers more times answer these questions less conservatively.

In more recent work, Enos looks at an as-if-random demographic change that resulted when Chicago demolished housing projects. The demolition of these projects made the population in those neighborhoods significantly whiter.

In this article, Enos finds that white residents living near the projects are 13.4 percentage points less likely to vote than white residents living further away, after the projects are demolished. In contrast, there is no difference in voting between black residents close to the projects and those that are further away. This is consistent with a story where white voters are no longer motivated by racial threat to get out the vote.

When we compare the vote choice of precincts near demolished projects to those near nondemolished projects, there’s even more evidence of voting in accordance to racial threat: precincts that next to demolished projects slowly become less likely to vote for Republicans, while there’s no such change in precincts next to nondemolished projects.

So, these are some pretty depressing findings. But I’m not yet convinced that they perfectly capture what I was thinking about yesterday. I completely buy racial threat, but I wonder whether everyone is equally susceptible to it. Is it possible that people with a less fixed sense of who their community includes aren’t as threatened by the addition of new people?

To pin that question down a little: in the Enos train study, the commuters seemed to know each other before these new Spanish-speakers were added. Then, part of the negative reaction must be “Hey, who are these guys? Never seen them before.” If you’re in a situation where you only rarely see people you recognize, it seems like this element of racial threat would be less pronounced.

I have an idea about how we could get at this in Enos’s data from the 2016 study of Chicago – he matches voter records with property records for everyone in Chicago. If we have the property records, we could subset to the voters who’ve only recently moved into their neighborhoods. My guess is that their turnout and vote choice doesn’t differ much from voters who aren’t next to demolished projects.


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