Immigrant Bashing Is All About Racism

What is it that gets so many conservative whites so enraged about immigration? Are they afraid immigrants will take away their jobs? Or do they just not like non-white people very much?

Steven Miller, a political science professor at Clemson, decided to test this using data from election surveys going back to 1992. I don’t want to keep you in suspense, so here’s the basic answer:

Nothing related to economic anxiety has any correlation at all with attitudes toward immigration—and it never has. Going back 25 years, the correlations are barely different from zero in practically every year.¹ But the correlation with racial resentment is both consistent and sky high. If you don’t like brown people, you don’t like immigration.

This is hardly news. Liberals have been mocking “economic anxiety” as an explanation for Donald Trump’s victory ever since Election Day. Still, for something this incendiary, it’s a good idea to test it as many ways as possible and over as much time as possible. This is just one more confirmation that when Trump rails about Mexico and the wall, he’s appealing almost purely to racism, not to working-class anxiety over job loss.

It’s worth noting that this forces us to face another question: was Trump’s anti-immigrant message responsible for his victory? My take is that the evidence shows us two things:

  • “Build the wall” appealed exclusively to racist sentiment.
  • With a few minor exceptions, racist sentiment was no stronger in 2016 than any other recent year. If you dial it up, you gain some voters at the bottom but lose at least as many from the middle.

In other words, Trump’s immigration message didn’t help him and, on net, probably actually hurt him. Outside of Trump’s base, I think most people understand perfectly well that anti-immigrant sentiment is basically driven by racism, and they want no part of it. Democrats should use this to their advantage by baiting Trump into getting ever louder and more putrid about immigration. The racist core of his base is already as fired up as it’s ever going to get over this, but the rest of the country becomes queasier the more he yells about it. In the Trump era, toleration for immigration isn’t just good policy, it’s almost certainly good politics too.

¹In fairness, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that there’s some economic variable somewhere that’s related to anti-immigration sentiment. Miller was limited to what was in the election surveys, so technically we can draw conclusions only about those particular variables. But in addition to the ones I show above, there’s also no (or barely any) correlation with gender, education, income, and being unemployed. So if there is some economic variable related to being anti-immigrant, it’s pretty well hidden.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest