The Era of White Anxiety Is Just Beginning | Sojourners

The Era of White Anxiety Is Just Beginning

Image via michaelgoodin/

Ask those involved in justice work where they find hope for the future of America, and they will likely point to demographics: Racial minorities are on track to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in America for the first time by 2042. Especially in left-leaning circles, the assumption is that a more diverse country will mean a more welcoming one — and, indeed, one more friendly to progressive policies and ideals.

According to Dr. Jennifer Richeson, that assumption is wrong.

“The expectation for increased U.S. diversity to result in greater tolerance is premature,” said Richeson at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last month. “In fact, the opposite is likely to happen.”

Richeson, professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a 2006 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, is co-author of two recent studies on the effects of changing racial demographic shifts on racial attitudes and political ideology. And she has words of caution — for Democrats, in particular.

“The increased erosion of progressive, race-related social policy is more likely,” she said.

Thanks to a rocky year, we’ve seen glimmers of this already — and not just in the candidacy of Donald Trump, though the propulsive acceleration of his campaign is quickly undermining hope that a historically white majority will quietly cede power. Over the past year, we’ve also had police shootings continue with alarming regularity; a water crisis in Flint, Mich.; and a presidential race in which even Democratic candidates stumble to speak inclusively on racial issues.

Some commentators say this season is anxiety-inducing but temporary, the moment when white Americans are realizing their way of life is over. Robert P. Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute called evangelicals who support Trump a “disaffected group … anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene,” and author Stephen Prothero called Trump the “king of lost causes.”

But Richeson’s studies show otherwise.

Threat Calculation

In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, support for President George W. Bush’s policies rose across every major political group. Richeson says previous studies show “strong and compelling evidence” for shifts to the right after a major trauma like a terrorist attack. But could even the threat of status change alone fuel the same fears?

“I kept hearing news outlets reporting on the impending shifting racial demographics of the country. I wondered whether even these seemingly benign reports of demographic changes in the U.S. might actually do the same,” Richeson told Sojourners.

Her findings, with Northwestern colleague Maureen A. Craig: Unaffiliated white Americans, including those with progressive, moderate, and conservative leanings, express more racial bias when confronted with news of a majority-minority future — and, in a further study, demonstrate a tendency to shift right on race-related policies.

A control group was given information on current U.S. demographics, while a test group was given census headlines using “majority-minority” language about the impending shift in racial demographics. White Americans who read about the demographic shift in California to a majority-minority state, for example, became more likely to endorse conservative race-related policies than those who did not — including among those who identify as moderate or progressive.

Richeson suggested this evidence of shifting political allegiances is a function of “social identity threat” — the idea, she said, that “if racial minorities increase in status, they are likely to reduce the influence of white Americans in society.”

Even more consequential: The role of social identity threat in shifts to the right isn’t limited to white Americans.

According to a forthcoming study, Richeson says, Asian and black Americans in a test group tended to endorse conservative race-related policy positions more after reading about the growing Hispanic population. Among Hispanics, race-related policy positions shifted left.

‘We have to be intentional’

These findings are concerning for groups and organizations working for systemic justice and social well-being, if not perhaps altogether surprising.

“This maps onto what we see personally and anecdotally,” said Duke Kwon, pastor of Grace Meridian Hill, a cross-cultural and racially diverse church in Washington, D.C.

“It think it’s natural for people to feel threatened when they are on the road to feeling disempowered.”

Indeed, some called out the treatment of race at the Oscars, where host Chris Rock’s sustained and justified call for better representation of black actors simultaneously shut out — or mocked — Asian, Hispanic, and Native American representation.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.47.04 PM.png

Image via Craig, Richeson; “On the Precipice of a ‘Majority-Minority’ America: Perceived Status Threat From the Racial Demographic Shift Affects White Americans’ Political Ideology”

Kwon and Richeson agree that the findings suggest not just anxiety about minority groups increasing in size, but a fear that that may also mean corresponding loss of power.

“If you’ve never experienced being ‘other,’ being essentially uncomfortable, and this is your first introduction to it — I understand, it is really going to be alienating and destabilizing to your identity,” said Kwon.

“There’s an angle to which I can understand how important it’s going to be for the church to raise up deliberate ministry for walking with white folks through this transition.”

In fact, churches like Kwon’s — which is committed to representing and welcoming the diverse communities in the church’s Columbia Heights neighborhood — may be well-positioned to put the many implications of Richeson’s studies directly to use. Kwon talks of the unique role of churches as institutions to provide space and shelter, building trust and learning “how to love the person to your left and to your right.”

“When it comes to relationship like this, church is this only place to be. [And] if it doesn’t happen in the church, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said.

Historically, progressive and some evangelical strains of Christianity have served as incubators for the social justice movements of their time. But today, alleviating the effects of social identity threat even among churchgoers will take work.

Church attendance is declining in numbers. And while more than 8 in 10 churches in the U.S. are made up of one predominant racial group, more than 67 percent say their church has done enough to become racially diverse.

This perception gap among racially diverse Christians can lead to worrisome gaps in the public square. A recent survey from PRRI showed that more than 7 in 10 white Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants believe that killings of black men by police are isolated incidents, while a full 82 percent of black Protestant Christians see a pattern of racially motivated violence.

“Churches don’t become racially diverse by accident,” Kwon said, citing a story from his own church of a heated conversation that took place at a ministry meeting, between a young white man and an older black woman. The discussion at hand was how to better reach out to the church’s black neighbors and the white volunteer had suggested getting involved in homelessness and poverty initiatives. The black volunteer burst out, saying she was “so sick and tired” of newer white inhabitants equating the black experience with being poor.

They managed to reconcile, and Kwon said the woman went on to host a seminar, sharing her story and more of the community’s history, which several church members attended.

“It takes a high degree of labor, intentionality, love, prayers, humility, work to make [diverse community] happen,” he said.

Richeson agrees that purpose and belonging may play an important role for assuaging perceived threats and conflict between racial groups.

“If we can re-frame those changes as non-threatening … then we should be able to avoid falling prey to our most base instincts toward segregation and intolerance,” she said.

Walking Forward

As we approach 2042, America will be working uphill against increased tension and heightened feelings of social isolation. Both Richeson and Kwon point to the inevitable challenges of diversity.

“The journey to justice and reconciliation is messy, and we should never expect it to be otherwise,” Kwon said.

But only with these efforts, he says, can we be “convinced that inclusion is not a zero sum game with respect to power.”

As for national conversations, Richeson says dropping usage of terms like “majority-minority” could go a long way in alleviating tension.

At the AAAS meeting in Washington, she quoted comedian Hari Kondabolu, “49 percent only makes you the minority if you think that the other 51 percent are exactly the same.”

The term, she says, minimizes the diversity and inter-group dynamics at play, and could unnecessarily amplify perceived threat.

“‘Majority-minority’ makes no sense,” she said to the lecture hall at the AAAS meeting in Washington. “I invite you to stop using it.”

for more info