Friday, December 19, 2014

Nothing new under the sun

This Chris Mooney blog post reports on a startling new "discovery": White racial prejudice appears to be greater in states that have a higher percentage African-American! Chris calls for more research: "... there is still more research to do in order to further home in and refine explanations for the striking pattern shown in the map at the start of this article." He suggests that such research might include seeing whether the geographical pattern holds at the county level as well.

Hmmm... that sounds familiar. Perhaps it's because people have been looking at this question for over half a century. Social psychologists have been talking about a "threat effect" of large numbers of minority members since the work of H.M. Blalock and Gordon Allport in the 1950s. Various studies have employed county-level data. Why, I even did so myself in the context of examining the racial wage gap.

The issue is complex and ambiguous, for obvious reasons: exposure to "diversity" may increase familiarity and reduce prejudice, but once the percentage minority is sufficiently large, whites may perceive minorities as a threat, leading to increased racism, discrimination, and potentially collective action. Of course, historical and cultural context are important. But my read is that the net effect in the United States, at least within the South, is that the threat effect dominates. Furthermore, given a distribution of white prejudice, an increase in the percentage black leads to more blacks coming into contact with prejudiced whites for employment and other social interactions. The result, as Gary Becker hypothesized and Charles and Guryan (JPE 2008) and I (JEH 2007) showed, is that discriminatory outcomes are more likely in places with relative more minority members, even holding racism constant.

See Chris? All it takes is a little search on Google Scholar!

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