First the good news. The United States is not as polarized as would seem from the recent government shutdown. To be sure there’s a liberal and conservative base anchoring our political spectrum. But the bulk of Americans, whether they be suburban soccer moms or blue collar Midwesterners, are somewhere in the middle. In other words, our country is not just red and blue, but rather a hue of purple.
Now the bad news. According to a recent Esquire-NBC News survey, Americans are leery of the nation’s increasing diversity. There are those that say they are “very anxious” about increased diversity, about twenty percent or 1 in 5 survey respondents. Then there is the majority, 65 percent, that simply feels uninspired by the increasing diversity in this country. For these individuals, “diversity inspires in them no hope for the future.”
Putting these two groups together there doesn’t seem to be much of a warm and fuzzy feeling toward non-whites.
Looking at the issue of immigration, this skepticism toward diversity is borne out. Over half of the survey respondents do not support a pathway to citizenship within immigration reform.
But is this bad news even news at all?
America is a nation of immigrants, but as immigration scholar Dan Tichenor notes, Americans embrace their sojourner past and scorn new and future arrivals. Historically, public opinion toward immigration has been lukewarm at best and usually hostile.
So the findings from this most recent survey show us nothing new at least in terms of immigration attitudes. As a nation we are no less open or closed to diversity via immigration than in the past.
The “bad” news about attitudes toward immigration also needs to be placed in context. One of the main reasons that immigration has historically inspired little support is the issue of economic competition. While at the macro-economic level immigration helps the U.S. economy, at the individual level it represents competition.
For the individual worker there is the sense that immigrants are taking scarce jobs and resources. And in the wake of the Great Recession these feelings are heightened. Regrettably in tough economic times immigrants are scapegoated. But as the economy improves feelings of economic competition should decrease and by extension so should anti-immigrant feelings.
Another reason for negative feelings about diversity is that it is a relatively new phenomenon. Just 50 years ago the U.S. was overwhelmingly white. While there was a small black population it was regionally concentrated in the South and a handful of industrial cities. And Latinos in the 1960s were less than five percent of the population and primarily found in Texas or California. Given these statistics, the demographic transformation over the last several decades is truly impressive.
Today we not only have a boom in diverse populations but a dispersion of these groups. The traditional destinations for immigrants were one of five gateway cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Houston. Today immigrants are in all corners of the country. So nervousness at diversity isn’t just about the sheer numbers of immigrants but about their newness in several regions.
The good news, however, is that as time passes and the new and old populations spend more time together, inter-group apprehensions should decrease. Academic research based on social contact theory shows that as individuals have more interactions, the better the feelings.
The fact that there is some nervousness about diversity isn’t new. Our country since its beginning has struggled with the theory of democratic inclusion and the practice of minority exclusion. In the end, what matters is that as a country we continue going forward toward the ideal of democratic inclusion. That policies such as comprehensive immigration reform keep being pushed, because in the end actions speak louder than words.
Victoria Defrancesco Soto
Saturday, 19 October 2013