Racist behaviour is declining in America

THE “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville on August 12th and President Donald Trump’s apparent inability to condemn neo-Nazis has fanned fears that his presidency will be accompanied by a rising tide of racism. There were already worrying signs of that: of 1,094 ‘bias incidents’ monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors right-wing extremists, between November 2016 and February 2017, more than a third of perpetrators were said to have mentioned Donald Trump, his campaign slogans or policies. And the centre suggests the number of hate groups in America, which had dropped between 2011 and 2014, began to climb again during the election campaign. But while race discrimination is still significant and widespread, it is declining—and Mr Trump’s accommodation of white supremacists will not be enough to reverse the tide. 

Research by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago and colleagues suggests that Mr Trump’s November win has certainly helped embolden white supremacists to go public. Before the election, the researchers offered survey participants a cash reward if they authorised a donation to a strongly anti-immigrant organization on their behalf. One group were told the donation would be in complete confidence, while the second group that the surveyor would know about their choice and discuss it with them in a future session. The group told that their donation would be anonymous was more likely to take the reward and authorise the donation than the group that was told its decision would be (comparatively) public. Mr Bursztyn and colleagues repeated the experiment after the election, and the gap between the groups disappeared. 

The researchers report that Donald Trump’s election victory did not make participants more xenophobic—but it did make those who were already xenophobic more comfortable about expressing their views without the shield of anonymity. The Charlottesville protest matches that result: racists were willing to march in public, but there weren’t very many racists. Only about 500 people were involved and they were rapidly outnumbered by counter-protestors. In Boston, counter-demonstrations to a subsequent “free speech” rally organized by alt-right groups drew at least fifteen times the people who turned up to the rally itself. And while those with racist views may have become freer about expressing them, a recent Marist poll suggests only 4% of Americans say they ‘mostly agree’ with the white supremacy movement (there is greater evidence of professed racist views amongst supporters of Mr Trump). 

Long-term trends, meanwhile, suggest a decline in both professed racist views and racist acts. On a range of survey measures including reported discomfort about living next to someone of a different race, or opposition to inter-racial marriage, Americans appear far less racist than in the past. Only 4% of Americans supported inter-racial marriage in 1958. By 1997 that was 50%; today it is 87%. Inter-racial marriages climbed from 7 to 15 percent of all marriages between 1980 and 2010. And racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI fell 48% between 1994 and 2015. Because local law enforcement agencies aren’t required to report hate crimes to the FBI and because they can only report to Washington if the crime has been reported to them in the first place, the FBI statistics are a considerable underestimate of the problem. But the trend is still revealing.

One reason for changing attitudes may be greater exposure to positive images of minorities. Hilda Ralsmark of the University of Gothenburg has studied the relationship between the prevalence of minority group characters on scripted television programming and hate crimes at the state level. She finds that when the share of black people on network television increased, states where people watched more television saw greater subsequent declines in hate crime than did states where people watched fewer hours of television. She suggests this reflects the fact that media visibility is a form of social recognition and can reduce prejudice and misunderstanding. This echoes work from Britain showing that anti-immigrant sentiment is lower in areas where there are more migrants: greater exposure fosters empathy. 

Racist behavior remains widespread in America, even among those who would never profess racist attitudes. Judy Rich of the Institute of Labour Economics surveys the literature on discrimination and finds numerous examples: similarly qualified black job applicants have to apply an average of 15 times to get a job compared to 10 times for their white counterparts. Black Americans are subject to tighter enforcement of dress codes and higher prices in bars. Airbnb requests from guests with distinctively black names are about 16% less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names. But for all Mr Trump may use his bully pulpit to back the bullies, Americans as a whole are still moving away from bigotry.

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