Congress Derailed: Fear and the American Dream, Redux

Fear is a good thing in some respects. It keeps us from tightrope walking over Niagara Falls on a whim and from taking jogs at 3 a.m. in poorly lit parks. This physiological safety-mechanism comes at a price, however, when it sneaks into daily interactions with people who benignly perturb our routine. That same fear is more present than most of us realize—or in Congress’ case, we’re willing to admit—and quickly fills the vacuum of discussion when addressing strategy for the profound demographic changes we’re witnessing in the US and abroad.

The environment of distrust identifiable in the changing American electorate and the nouveau internet politicism has manifested as twenty years of Executive branch failure on immigration reform (most recently in 2007 and 2014). Professor and field researcher Ryan Enos examined this failure in his 2014 piece “Causal effect of intergroup contact on exclusionary attitudes.” In it, Enos addresses the root of the immigration debate—ingroup attitudes towards certain outgroups that impact the ingroups’ voting and policy preferences, and overall opposition to increasing elements in the American melting pot—without drudging up the usual partisan bickering over racism, political obscurantism, and Presidential mistrust. He simply examines fear of the “other,” and shows that over time individuals initially reluctant to dwell in multi-ethnic communities tend to support policies that encourage immigration.

Enos begins by framing this experiment in political psychology in terms of contact. If we all accept that people exhibit specific qualities, defined as “race” or “ethnicity” (even professional demographers can’t agree on the terminology), we can talk about intergroup relationships—that is, if I come from a particular place outside your community, it’s not unreasonable that you might be somewhat suspicious of my presence when I show up in your neighborhood, particularly if you hear me speaking another language.

Suspicion of outgroups can generate a range of responses, from unease to violence, as the race politics debates of the late 1950s and 1960s exposed at the national level. Enos’ challenge was to identify and measure more subtle forms of race politics, which are arguably more muddled than overt displays of anti-group sentiment.

Enos designed a simple experiment in which Spanish-speaking confederates were assigned to randomly encounter members of a demographic ingroup, in an attempt to convince ingroup members that demographic change was occurring in their living space. He hypothesized that ingroup members would internalize the apparent transformation in their familiar environment and subsequently construct a response that they would display through social preferences. There would be a measurable phenomenon—such as support for anti-immigration policies—acting as a proxy for an unstated negative emotion toward immigrants in the community.

Enos staged the ingroup-outgroup interaction in train stations in communities with a high degree of Caucasian homogeneity (83 percent self-identified as White and four percent Hispanic). Two Spanish-speakers would speak within earshot of commuters without engaging them directly. While controlling for possible confounding factors in a separate setting, Enos tested if largely homogenous communities had specific attitudes about immigration.

Responses were gathered from community members who frequented the train at regular times during the workweek via an anonymous online questionnaire prepared by the investigation team, prior to their exposure on the platform to the outgroup Spanish-speakers. Researchers followed up with a second paid questionnaire after the ingroup-outgroup interaction.

Enos’ conclusions revealed clear outcomes. Treated subjects (community members) were more likely to support decreases in immigration from Mexico and less likely to accept the amnesty argument that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the US. The research team made another unmeasurable yet salient observation: the Spanish-speaking confederates reported—without having been asked—that commuters took notice and displayed physical unease at their presence.

The future of race politics in America isn’t set in stone, however. Because community members were “treated” with exposure to the Spanish-speakers over a series of consecutive days, the research team was able to track the evolution of ingroup reactions. Although members of the ingroup reported increased anti-immigrant sentiment after hearing the Spanish-speakers, they became more tolerant upon further exposure. It appears that the introduction of outsiders raises political conservatism at the outset, but this effect dissipates over time.

If community members felt apprehensive of the Spanish-speakers, they tended to feel less apprehensive the more time they spent around them. However, there was no measurable post-treatment shift for community members who expressed tolerance from the beginning. Longer exposure left them just as indifferent as they began.

The study provides supportive evidence for those who wish to debunk prevalent clichés about conservative political views on immigration: not everyone in homogenous communities is isolationist out of fear of outgroups, and even those who hold prejudices tend to warm up to outsiders after adjusting to their presence. That’s just human biology at work. Some people need more time to acclimate to changes in their environments rather than a lecture in tolerance and certainly not accusations of racism (which are in some contexts, unfortunately, actually founded) that are likely to make them feel cut out of the larger race dialogue.

Article Source: Ryan Enos, Causal effect of intergroup contact on exclusionary attitudes, 2014, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (111) 10, pp. 3699–3704.

Feature Photo: cc/(ChrisGoldNY)'
Paul Berry
Paul Berry is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of of Public Policy. He is interested in foreign policy.

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