Opinion | How Strong Is America’s Multiracial Democracy?

The issue cutting across every aspect of American politics today is whether — and how — the nation can survive as a multiracial democracy.

One key question is what the political impact has been of the decades-long quest to integrate America’s schools.

A study published last year, “The Long-Run Effects of School Racial Diversity on Political Identity,” examined how “the end of race-based busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, an event that led to large changes in school racial composition,” affected the partisanship of students as adults.

The authors, Stephen Billings, of the University of Colorado, Eric Chyn, of Dartmouth, and Kareem Haggag, of U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management, found that “a 10-percentage point increase in the share of minorities in a student’s assigned school decreased their likelihood of registering as a Republican by 8.8 percent.” The drop was “entirely driven by white students (a 12 percent decrease).”

“What mechanisms can explain our results?” the authors asked.

Their answer:

Intergroup contact is a key potential channel. Several theoretical frameworks provide predictions for how exposure to more minority peers may shape party affiliation. For white students, we focus on the “contact hypothesis,’” which posits that meaningful contact with out-group members can reduce prejudice toward them. This theory suggests that exposure to minority peers should reduce the likelihood of registering as a Republican by weakening ‘racially conservative’ attitudes that have been linked to support for the Republican Party.

In support of their argument, the authors cite two additional papers, “The Impact of College Diversity on Behavior toward Minorities,” by Scott E. Carrell, Mark Hoekstra and James E. West, economists at the University of California-Davis, Texas A&M and Baylor, which found “that white students who are randomly assigned a Black roommate in their freshmen year are more likely to choose a Black roommate in subsequent years,” and “Building social cohesion between Christians and Muslims through soccer in post-ISIS Iraq” by Salma Mousa, a political scientist at Yale, which found “evidence of positive impacts of religious-based and caste-based intergroup contact through sports.”

In major respects, the busing of public school students in Charlotte-Mecklenberg in North Carolina meets the requirements for productive interracial contact posited by Gordon Allport, a professor of psychology at Harvard, in his classic 1954 book “The Nature of Prejudice.”

Allport wrote that prejudice

may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom, or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg integration program had widespread public support. Education Week reported that after the federal courts in 1971 ordered busing to achieve integration:

Charlotte’s political and business leaders moved to support the busing order. Antibusing school-board members were voted out and replaced with supporters of the order. Parents of children scheduled to be bused joined together to seek ways to smooth the logistical problems. No serious protest has erupted since then, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district is often cited as a successful example of mandatory busing.

In that respect, Charlotte-Mecklenberg stood out in a nation where cities like Boston and Detroit experienced divisive and often violent protest.

A 2018 study, “Past Place, Present Prejudice,” explored some of the complexities of court-ordered racial integration. The authors, Seth Goldman, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts, and Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, report that “if a non-Hispanic white person grew up in a county with no African Americans, we should expect that person’s prejudice to be 2.3 points lower than an otherwise similar respondent growing up in a county that is 18 percent Black.”

Goldman and Hopkins described their data as supporting the following conclusion: “Proximity during one’s formative years increases racial prejudice years later.”

Chyn, one of the authors of the “School Racial Diversity” paper, and Goldman, one of the authors of the “Past Place” paper, both stressed by email that they were comparing racial and political attitudes under different circumstances.

Goldman wrote:

I don’t see any contradictions between the findings and those in my and Dan’s paper. It is a common misperception that studies finding a relationship between living in more racially diverse places represented as larger geographic units such as counties and expressing higher levels of racial prejudice contradicts intergroup contact theory. On the contrary, this relationship is due to the lack of sustained interracial contact among most Whites in racially diverse areas. The typical situation is one of proximity without contact: whereas merely being in proximity to members of different groups promotes threat responses, sustained contact helps to alleviate prejudice.

Chyn emailed to say:

At least one difference is that our work focuses on intergroup exposure within schools whereas Goldman and Hopkins study the influence of racial context at the broader county level. This distinction matters as it is often thought that sustained and cooperative contact is necessary to reduce prejudice between groups. Schools may be a particularly good setting where such beneficial contact can occur. Goldman and Hopkins’s work may be picking up the effect of having geographic proximity to racial outgroups with no substantive interaction between children growing up in an area.

Brian T. Hamel, a political scientist at L.S.U., and Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta, a research scientist at Facebook, studied intergroup contact in a context more likely to intensify racial conflict, reporting in their paper “Black Workers in White Places: Daytime Racial Diversity and White Public Opinion,” that “voting behavior in presidential and congressional elections, feelings of racial resentment, and attitudes on affirmative action” of whites is more conservative in neighborhoods where the share of Black, nonresident workers is significantly higher than in places with fewer Black, nonresident workers.

“Whites respond to just the passing, irregular presence of Blacks who commute into their neighborhood for work,” Hamel elaborated in an email. “The upshot is that Blacks do not have to even live in the same neighborhood as whites to get the kind of racial threat reactions that we see in other work.”

David O. Sears, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., contends in his 2014 paper “The American Color Line and Black Exceptionalism” that

People of African descent have an exceptional place in American political life because their history, described by the racial caste prototype of intergroup relations, has been unique among American ethnic minorities.

Sears adds that

the one-drop rule applied to blacks is considerably less permeable than is the color line applied to Latinos and Asians, particularly in later generations further removed in time from immigration.

Compared with other minorities, the history and experience of Black Americans is unique, according to Sears:

Although Latinos and Asians have certainly faced discrimination and exclusion throughout U.S. history, the majority of contemporary U.S. residents who identify as Latino and Asian are not descendants of the generations who were subjected to second-class citizenship in the 19th or 20th centuries. Instead, most are true immigrants, often not yet citizens, and often do not speak English at home. In contrast, the vast majority of blacks living in the United States are native-born citizens, speak only English in all contexts, and are descendants of generations who were subjected to enslavement.

Sears cites data in support of his argument that African Americans have faced different historical contingencies in the story of American integration:

“In the 2010 census, the segregation of blacks from whites remained extremely high, with a dissimilarity index of 59,” while the dissimilarity index (a measure of racial or ethnic segregation or isolation) was 48 for Latinos and 41 for Asian Americans.

Sears continued:

Blacks (25 percent) were almost four times as likely as U.S.-born Latinos (7 percent) or Asians (5 percent) to show the highest level of aggrieved group consciousness.

55 percent of the blacks, as against 36 percent of the U.S.-born Latinos and 23 percent of the Asians, were at least moderately high in group consciousness.

In this regard, economic factors have been instrumental. In “The Color of Disparity: Racialized Income Inequality and Support for Liberal Economic Policies,” Benjamin J. Newman and Bea-Sim Ooi, political scientists at the University of California-Riverside, and Tyler Thomas Reny, of Claremont Graduate University, compared support for liberal economic policies in ZIP codes where very few of the poor were Black with ZIP codes where a high proportion of the poor were Black.

“Exposure to local economic inequality is only systematically associated with increased support for liberal economic policies when the respective ‘have-nots’ are not Black,” according to Newman, Ooi and Reny.

A 2021 study, “The Activation of Prejudice and Presidential Voting” by Daniel Hopkins — the co-author of the “Past Place, Present Prejudice” — raises a related question:

Divisions between Whites and Blacks have long influenced voting. Yet given America’s growing Latino population, will Whites’ attitudes toward Blacks continue to predict their voting behavior? Might anti-Latino prejudice join or supplant them?

Hopkins examined whites’ responses to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, which contained more overt anti-immigrant rhetoric than anti-Black themes. The result nonetheless: “Donald Trump’s candidacy activated anti-Black but not anti-Latino prejudice,” Hopkins writes.

Hopkins acknowledges that “people who expressed more restrictionist immigration attitudes in 2008 and 2012 were more likely to shift toward Trump,” but argues that that did not translate into increased bias against Hispanics because it reflected an even deeper-seated racism:

Although the 2016 campaign foregrounded issues related to Latino immigrants, our results demonstrate the enduring role of anti-Black prejudice in shaping Whites’ vote choices. Even accounting for their 2012 vote choice, partisanship and other demographics, Whites’ 2012 anti-Black prejudice proved a robust predictor of supporting G.O.P. nominee Donald Trump in 2016 while anti-Latino prejudice did not.

Hopkins speculates that Trump successfully activated anti-Black views because “generations of racialized political issues dividing Blacks and Whites have produced developed psychological schema in many Whites’ minds, schema that are evoked even by rhetoric targeting other groups.”

The long history of Black-white conflict has, Hopkins argues,

forged and reinforced durable connections in White Americans’ minds between anti-Black prejudice and vote choice. It is those pathways that appear to have been activated by Trump, even in the presence of substantial rhetoric highlighting other groups alongside Blacks. Once formed, the grooves of public opinion run deep.

Against this generally troubling background, there are some noteworthy countervailing trends.

In an August 2021 paper, “Race and Income in U.S. Suburbs: Are Diverse Suburbs Disadvantaged?” Ankit Rastogi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration, challenges “two assumptions: that people of color are concentrated largely in cities and that communities of color are disadvantaged.”

Instead, Rastogi — using data from the 2019 American Community Survey — finds that:

By and large, racially diverse suburbs are middle class when comparing their median household income with the national value ($63,000). The most multiracial suburbs host populations with the highest median incomes (mean ~ $85,000). Black and Latinx median household incomes surpass the national value in these diverse suburbs.

By 2010, Rastogi points out, majorities of every major demographic group lived in suburbs:

51 percent of Black Americans, 62 percent of Asians, 59 percent of Latinx, and 78 percent of whites. Many people of color live in suburbs because they see them as desirable, resource-rich communities with good schools and other public goods.

In addition, Rastogi writes,

roughly 45 million people of color and 42 million white people lived in suburbs with diversity scores above 50 in 2019. On average, these people live in middle-class contexts, leading us to question stereotypes of race, place and disadvantage.

While Rastogi correctly points to some optimistic trends, David Sears presents a less positive view:

Blacks’ contemporary situation reveals the force of their distinctive history. African Americans remain the least assimilated ethnic minority in America in the respects most governed by individual choice, such as intermarriage and residential, and therefore, school, integration. By the same criteria, Latinos and Asians are considerably more integrated into the broader society.

The key, Sears continues,

is America’s nearly impermeable color line. Americans of all racial and ethnic groups alike think about and treat people of African descent as a particularly distinctive, exceptional group — not as just another ‘people of color.’

Sears does not, however, get the last word.

In a March 2021 report, “The Growing Diversity of Black America,” the Pew Research Center found some striking changes in recent decades:

From 2000 to 2019, the percentage of African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree rose from 15 to 23 percent, as the share with a master’s degree or higher nearly doubled from 5 to 9 percent.

At the same time, the share of African Americans without a high school degree was cut by more than half over the same period, from 28 to 13 percent.

Median Black household income has grown only modestly in inflation adjusted dollars from $43,581 in 2000 to $44,000 in 2019, but there were improvements in the distribution of income, with the share earning more than $50,000 growing.

In 2000, 31 percent of Black households made $25,000 or less (in 2019 U.S. dollar adjusted value), 25 percent made between $25,000 and $49,999, while 28 percent made at least $50,000 but less than $100,000, and 16 percent made $100,000 or more.

In 2019, 29 percent of Black households made less than $25,000, a quarter earned from $25,000 to $49,999, while 17 percent made between $50,000 and $75,000, 10 percent earned from $75,000 to $100,000 and 18 percent earned more than $100,000.

Evidence of extraordinary Black progress has been underreported — indeed minimized — in recent years. That reality notwithstanding, there has been consistent and considerable achievement. Given the historical treatment of African Americans in school and in society, perhaps the most striking accomplishment has been in the rising levels of educational attainment. The economic gains have been more incremental. But neither set of gains can or should be ignored.

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