Neighbors New and Old: How Immigration Affects Broader Race Relations in the United States

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dennis Young , covers the new article by Vasiliki Fouka, Stanford University, and Marco Tabellini, Harvard Business School: “Changing In-Group Boundaries: The Effect of Immigration on Race Relations in the United States.”

In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, immigration remains an immensely polarizing and divisive issue within the United States. While the effects of immigration on white attitudes towards immigrants have been a major subject of study, what is less well understood is how increased immigration might affect how white voters perceive other racial groups. To this end, new research from Vasiliki Fouka and Marco Tabellini attempts to better understand how immigration influences racial policy preferences and attitudes by closely examining how demographic changes caused by immigration affect the feelings of a majority group towards other racial groups, focusing specifically on America’s Black population.

This research builds on research in social psychology about how the appearance of distance between an in-group and an out-group can affect how the in-group feels about said out-group as well as other extant out-groups. An in-group refers to people who share a certain set of commonalities, while the out-group refers to those who do not share those same traits. Crucially, the traits that distinguish in- from out-groups are not fixed but depend on which other groups are present in a society. Race is a common example of a trait that shapes in- and out-groups; in this case, white voters see other racial groups as an “out-group.” Fouka and Tabellini theorize that individuals in a group will tend to classify themselves and others into in- and out-groups, depending on perceived social or cultural distance; this distance is called “affective distance.” Affective distance can also be shaped by perceptions of threat or familiarity with a group. If a new group emerges that has a very high affective distance from the in-group, it could lead that group to adjust their evaluations of other out-groups. In this case, the authors suggest that increased immigration by Hispanics could potentially cause the white in-group to begin to evaluate the Black population more positively. This is because, according to the authors, the inflow of Hispanic immigrants may increase the importance of language and nationality as social boundaries, while reducing that of race and skin color. As a result, when seeing or thinking about Black people, white individuals may associate them with the “American” group rather than with an out-group based on race.

To investigate this puzzle, the authors begin by bringing together data from the census and other surveys between 1970 and 2010. This allows the authors to combine demographic data (including those on immigration) with data on attitudes and feelings towards racial groups.  The authors also launched an original survey experiment in order to see how much immigration changed white attitudes towards the Black population.

“Perceptions of other groups are not just determined by relationships between two groups. Rather, the whole spectrum of in- and out-groups can influence each group’s assessment of another.” The authors found that as the number of Mexican immigrants in a given area increased, white attitudes towards the Black population improved substantially, while their assessment of Hispanics became more negative. This effect did not extend to other racial groups such as Asian Americans or Arab Americans because these groups were not perceived as American. Rather, these groups were still interpreted as “immigrant” or “foreign.” Furthermore, the size of the effect was impacted by the pre-immigration feelings towards each racial group. The larger the difference between white attitudes towards the Black population and white attitudes towards the Hispanic population, the more positively the white in-group would perceive the Black population after immigration. Together, this suggests that when new groups that appear distant from the in-group in question enter, the in-group will start to evaluate other, closer out groups more positively.

This study, in addition to providing a useful way to understand changes in attitudes towards racial groups, suggests something important about how racial politics in America plays out. Perceptions of other groups are not just determined by relationships between two groups. Rather, the whole spectrum of in- and out-groups can influence each group’s assessment of another. As immigration continues to increase, it will continue to reconfigure the landscape of racial politics and attitudes in America. Thus, it is incredibly important to pay attention to not only individual group changes but also how these changes affect inter-group relationships.

  • Dennis Young is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His dissertation research examines resistance to detention and deportation in the United States, coalitional organizing, and conceptions of freedom in these communities. This research operates at the intersection of American Politics, Political Theory, Public Law, and Race and Ethnicity Politics. In addition to this work he is also working on pieces about determinants of solidarity in protest movements, and the role of law in anti-detention organizing. He holds a B.A. from Whitman College and an M.A. from the University of Washington.
  • Article details: FOUKA, VASILIKI, and MARCO TABELLINI. 2021. “Changing In-Group Boundaries: The Effect of Immigration on Race Relations in the United States.”  American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–17.  
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.