By Jenny Enos
Since the election of President Obama in 2008, many Americans have claimed that we live in a “post-racial society” in which race no longer matters. After all, if we elected a Black man to be president – the ultimate position of power in the country – how can people still claim that racism exists?
Some telling societal metrics also speak to an leveled playing field between the races; for example, the difference in college enrollment rates for White and Black 18-to 24-year-olds has decreased from 8 percentage points in 2000 to 5 percentage points in 2018. At the very least, might these numbers suggest that we are headed in the right direction?
Unfortunately, the story is not that simple. What we think of as “overt” or “traditional” racism – where bias or prejudice is openly expressed – has been on a steady increase in recent years. In 2020, hate crimes in the US reached the highest level in over a decade, with 64% of hate crimes being racially motivated. In 2015, the last year of Obama’s term as president, a White man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black members of a church in South Carolina in what is considered one of the most heinous racial hate crimes in recent US history.
At the same time, sociologists have pointed out that it is not just these overt forms of racism we should be paying attention to. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued, a more subtle, “color-blind” racism runs rampant in our society, whereby White people are able to make statements about different racial groups in non-racial terms, thus not “sounding racist.” For example, Whites may say that the reason why Black Americans are overrepresented among the unemployed is because they share a “culture of poor work ethic,” and that they “don’t see race – just people.” While statements like these may seem innocuous, they ultimately (and insidiously) contribute to upholding white supremacy by denying the presence of structural racism and inequality.
Why, then, does racism in these forms persist? Sociologists have a long history of finding ways to explain race-based prejudice and bias. In his foundational 1967 book, Hubert M. Blalock laid the groundwork for what would later be called “group threat theory.” According to this perspective, prejudice is produced when the majority group (in this case, White Americans) feels threatened by the minority group (Black Americans). In particular, the theory proposes that as the minority group increases in size, and when economic conditions (such as unemployment) worsen within the majority group, the sense of threat – and therefore prejudice – would increase within the majority group.
Because of a perceived competition over scarce resources in society, such as jobs, prejudice when the majority group feels they receive less of those resources. We see this sense of economic threat play out in current political debates about immigration, for example, where the majority group (native-born Americans) feels that the minority group (Latinx immigrants, in particular) is “stealing American jobs.” During a campaign event in Phoenix in 2015, then-candidate for President Donald Trump told the crowd that Mexicans are “taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” While it is impossible to say to what extent this anti-immigrant rhetoric helped Trump win the Presidency, it certainly seemed to have echoed the threat many Americans felt from immigrants.
However, the widespread anti-immigrant prejudice in the US is not just the result of economic threats – that is, that Americans are afraid that their jobs will be stolen by immigrants. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have reached levels as Asian immigrants and Americans of Asian immigrants have been scapegoated based on their race. In this case, the majority group (non-Asian Americans) does not feel an economic sense of threat; rather, scholars have argued, they perceive a biological threat from the minority group based on the notion that the coronavirus disease originated in Asia. In response to a biological threat, populations can become prejudiced against “outsiders” who are seen as responsible for creating feelings and spreading the disease – and those who were already prejudiced may become encouraged to act out their form in the form of hate.
In a study recently published in Sociological Forum, Chelsea Daniels, Paul DiMaggio, G. Cristina Mora, and Hana Shepherd investigate the to which the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced Californians’ attitudes toward immigration, diversity, and Asian Americans. In spite of the widespread anti-Asian rhetoric and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since the pandemic began, they find that attitudes toward Asian Americans were unaffected when respondents were primed with questions about COVID-19. However, being primed with questions about COVID-19 did decrease respondents’ appreciation for diversity and their support for policies that create a pathway to citizenship among undocumented immigrants.
As this study shows, the relationship between different groups and perceived threat is not necessarily straight forward. While the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes is certainly concerning, this study suggests that the pandemic has not necessarily generated widespread anti-Asian sentiment. Rather, the authors argue that the rise in hate crimes is likely because “elite expressions of bias made such actions are acceptable” (21) in the minds of some Americans, highlighting the potential influence of politicians who encourage scapegoating against groups.
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