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.

On the Move

I am 27 years old, and I have lived in eight states, only counting places where I’ve stayed for more than three months. If you count places I’ve stayed for at least one month, I’ve lived in ten states and two countries. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2008, I’ve lived in more states than 98% of people in the United States.

Not counting moves that were intentionally limited in time – internships and the like – I’ve moved 12 times in my life so far. The average American moves 11.4 times in their lifetime.

Now, I was thinking about this the other day as part of a larger package of “life assessment” style thoughts, and I found myself wondering whether moving this often makes a person more liberal. At a glance, that jives with our intuition, right? Social conservatism, at its core, honors tradition and sees inherent value in processes that are time-tested. Social liberalism, at its limit, doesn’t include the age of a practice in its consideration of that practice’s value. Why would it matter if a practice is “traditional” if it is unjust?

It seems likely that a person who moves around a lot during their life is exposed to more traditions and ways of being than a person who stays in their hometown. It’s possible that they could react by ossifying, bunkering into their traditions. But I guess I think it’s more likely that they would react by becoming a little more agnostic about the “right” way to do things.

This intuition seems to hold up to a superficial analysis – the cross-tabulation below shows that liberals are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in multiple places, and conservatives are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in the same place for their entire life. (This data is from the 2008 Pew Research Center survey.)

Crosstabs of moving and ideology

However, this is where it gets a bit complicated. Because there are plenty of characteristics that are predictive of moving around that are also predictive of being liberal. Poorer families are more likely to move in search of economic opportunities – this was my family’s experience. Married people are less likely to switch states, and they’re more conservative than single people. Higher education levels are correlated with moving more often and being less conservative.

On top of all of these confounders, we’re also faced with a reverse causality issue. If you value tradition less, you’re probably more willing to move around than a person who gets a lot of utility from stability.

It’s pretty thorny. My gut tells me that there’s probably some causal impact here – maybe not a large one, and certainly contingent on whether you move somewhere with a similar culture to your hometown’s, but some kind of liberalizing effect. We’ve just got to find a natural experiment. I think I’m going to check the data for Moving to Opportunity – it should be that folks awarded housing vouchers for low-poverty neighborhoods are moving to different enough cultures that we might see some liberalization.

The Second Post – What Do I Write About, Though?

Alas. It is only day two of this endeavor and the worst has already come to pass – I have no idea what to write. I suspect this is far from the last time this will happen before 365 days are up.

Since I don’t really know what I should write about, let me opine about a t.v. show I watched recently. Behind the times as I am, I only got around to watching Breaking Bad on Netflix in the past three weeks. And I have some feelings that I can’t really air with friends – that’s what you get when you watch a t.v. show four years after its time.

(Side note: I’ve never been the type to watch popular television shows as they’re airing. I think this is because I’ve been in various tertiary and graduate institutions. For some of that time, I didn’t have internet, let alone cable. (That’ll be a piece for another day, I figure.) For the large proportion of years, I’ve had cable, but the ill-defined boundaries of academic life wipe out, for me, the ability to enjoy the normal American past-time of watching a show when it airs. I can barely read for fun without feeling like I ought to be working; devoting an hour per week to a show is out of the question. So instead, I have binging episodes, where I know that I’ve wrapped up whatever obligations for at least a week, and I can figure that that gives me enough time to watch an entire television series. I enjoy it less than I otherwise would, in part because there’s no one to talk about it with, and I am overwhelmed with guilt. But damnit, I have seen some fine t.v. Wallander FTW.)

So, Breaking Bad. Holy toxic masculinity, Batman. Here we see a man who is so wrapped up in the idea of what it means to be “a man” that he can’t see how his actions are hurting the people he’s trying to help. Even at the end, he can’t let the Grey Matter people contribute a cent of their own money. Pride really does goeth before the fall.

That was something else that caught me about Walt. One night, waking up after a binge-inspired drug dealer dream, I found myself sleepily thinking about how many of the Seven Deadly Sins Walt encompasses. Greed, obvs. Pride and Wrath are shoe-ins, as is Envy. I’d argue for Gluttony, as Wikipedia defines it; there’s an element of Walt that pursues trouble for his own sake, placing his interests before his family’s. Even though it isn’t eating, he still displays that selfishness that Gluttony implies. I think you might even be able to make an argument for Lust, if you view it as “desiring too much.” There are certainly times in the series when Walt crosses the line in that respect, most notably the time when he nearly rapes his wife. Sloth is the only sin to which Walt really cannot make any claim.

I wonder whether this is part of what makes Walt so engaging to watch. We start out with a guy who is relatively virtuous, but his descent into violence and evil are multi-faceted.

In any case, I think I’m going to try to do NaNoWriMo this year, so I’d better figure out what makes Walt such a great villain, so that I can emulate it.

(Another side note: Also, I guess maybe from reading blogs and such, Walt wasn’t really considered a villain by the viewing audience at the end? And Skyler was hated? From the perspective of one person, watching alone, neither of these conclusions really makes a ton of sense, and both make me wonder whether the Gamergate trolls aren’t just being noisier than regular people. But maybe you, reader, can convince me.)

Hello, World!

I think I should explain myself.

I am a graduate student at a university in the United States. It doesn’t really matter where, and since I’m trying to keep this pretty impersonal and hard to identify, I’ll leave out some critical information. But here’s what I can tell you: I’ve been studying political science for the last three years in the hopes of obtaining a Ph.D. eventually. And I’m thinking of leaving the program and changing my career field altogether.

I’ll probably save what brought me to the point of dropping out of graduate school for another blog post – since I’m supposed to be doing 500 words per day on some subject, it seems like I should be very careful not to use up two subjects in one post. Instead, this post is for what comes next.

I’m taking a leave of absence for the next academic year. That gives me a little more than 12 months to go to work for some firm, outside of academia, and figure out whether I like the work enough to part ways with academia more permanently.

Therein lies the rub. One of the main reasons I’ve chosen to take the leave of absence is that I actually have no idea what I want to write my dissertation on. But the uncertainty doesn’t stop with the dissertation topic – as I’ve been crawling through the muck of Indeed.com, clicking drowsily on entry-level job titles and checking myself against their required qualifications, I’ve found myself equally moved by most causes.

Providing data education for college students in Virginia? Sign me up! Protecting our nation from foreign threats? Why the hell not! Advertising an automated machine learning platform? Wow. Wow, wow, wow.  There are some jobs that sound truly horrific – working for Uber or *shudder* Comcast, for instance – but for the most part the jobs I’ve found sit on this bubble of “yeah, I’d be willing to do that.”

In theory, this should be good news to me. I should be able to genuinely claim interest in a wide variety of causes, making me more flexible in what kind of work I take. But there’s this niggling little voice in the back of my head saying, “Don’t you think it’s time you figured out what you stand for?”

If passing interest were sufficient for choosing something to work on for the next 5 to 10 years, then I could just continue working on my Ph.D. It just seems to me like the threshold for the activity that is going to occupy most of my waking hours should be higher.

Since more than one of my colleagues has remarked to me that passion can grow from doing work, I’m going to use this blog to try and grow some passion by forcing myself to think about different things. My hope is that at the end of a year where I’ve written a single blog post each day, I’ll have a better sense of what I’d like to continue working on and what I’m content to leave behind.

I don’t expect that anyone is going to read this, but if you do – please, leave me prompts in the “Contact” form. 500 words is about one page, and so I expect to write around 365 pages by the end. It’s certain that at some point I’m going to run out of ideas.