Shifting U.S. demographics may alter who white Americans see as racial minorities, potentially increasing the number of people vulnerable to discrimination, new Cornell psychology research finds.
In a series of studies, white participants who read news stories about census projections showing that racial minorities will make up a majority of the nation’s population by 2050 – a so-called “majority-minority” – were more likely to report feeling their status threatened and to see the faces of mixed-race individuals as nonwhite.
The threat of demographic decline, the researchers suggest, motivates white Americans to lower their threshold for assigning racially ambiguous faces to historically subordinate groups. Doing so bolsters white status by raising the bar for who is considered white, they argue.
Prior research has proposed such a process, but the new experiments are the first to test for it directly, the scholars said. They said the findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that demographic changes could strain race relations.
“Given the ubiquity of news headlines describing demographic shifts in the U.S. … many white Americans are likely to experience threats to their status, which can lead to greater anti-minority attitudes and behaviors,” the authors wrote. “As the number of people who identify as more than one race continues to increase to record levels, amplified discriminatory behavior could affect a rapidly increasing number of people as the U.S. inches closer to becoming a majority-minority nation.”
Amy Krosch, assistant professor in the cross-college Department of Psychology and the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), is the lead author of “The Threat of a Majority-Minority U.S. Alters White Americans’ Perception of Race,” published Dec. 10, 2021, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Co-authors include former undergraduate honors thesis student Suzy Park ’18; Jesse Walker, Ph.D. ’19; and Ari Lisner, former manager of Krosch’s Social Perception and Intergroup Inequality Lab.
In five studies, more than 1,600 white participants viewed images of faces – either real or computer-generated combinations of faces – and identified them as white, Black, Latino or “not white.”
The scholars measured how much minority content the “morphed” faces contained, or the degree of ambiguity in real faces, as measured by the Chicago Face Database, before study participants labeled them nonwhite.
Before they categorized the faces, participants were randomly assigned to a “threat” condition that read about the impending majority-minority, while those in a control group read articles about growing geographic mobility.
All groups showed evidence of “hypodescent” – the over-categorization of mixed-race faces to lower-status groups – but the tendency was stronger among participants threatened by demographic change. They required faces to contain 64% white content to be classified as white, on average, compared to 60% in the control condition, the researchers found.
In contrast, more than 170 nonwhite participants in a supplemental study agreed that growing percentages of minority residents posed a threat to white status but did not classify faces differently.
The team found that effect could be reversed. When threatened study participants were encouraged to believe counting more people as white would benefit white status, their categorization of mixed-race faces mirrored a control group’s.
Overall, the research presents “strong convergent evidence,” the scholars said, that the threat of demographic change motivates white Americans to shore up white status by making it more exclusive – altering who they perceive as minorities.
Demographically threatening headlines could influence how substantial numbers of people perceive race. The researchers estimated that roughly 29 million more white American adults would have a stricter threshold for seeing “whiteness” than the average white American not exposed to such news.
“It is important to consider the ways these small shifts in perception of race could play out in the real world,” the authors wrote. “By examining how demographic shifts alter who is perceived as a minority in the first place, we aim to identify those most vulnerable to the consequences of demographic change.”
Funding support for the research included a Cornell President’s Council of Cornell Women Affinito-Stewart Grant awarded to Krosch, and several awards to Park: the Cornell Einhorn Undergraduate Research Award, A&S Undergraduate Research Award and Cornell Halpern-Rosevear Undergraduate Research Award.