American cities have experienced an alarming double-digit rise in hate crimes in recent years, due in part to factors like anti-Asian sentiment in the wake of the pandemic and racial strife following the murder of George Floyd.
Now, new research suggests yet another explanation for hate crimes: increased violence and negative attitudes toward any group perceived to be the largest minority.
“When the minority group becomes larger, the majority group feels more threatened.”
The study, published in August in Nature Human Behaviour, suggests that hate crimes against minorities tightly track with the relative rank of a group in any given community. A minority group ranked as the largest experiences the most discrimination, followed by the second-largest group, and so on, explains Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Marco Tabellini, one of the paper’s authors.
Why does this happen? According to Tabellini, white people fear losing status and access to public resources or jobs, as has long been posited in sociology and psychology literature.
“When the minority group becomes larger, the majority group feels more threatened,” says Tabellini. “This is why we think rank matters, because it sends you a more concise measure of how likely a minority group is to frighten the majority.”
Against a backdrop of interest among companies in racial equity and inclusion, Tabellini’s research offers valuable clues for spotting tension before it begins. For communities struggling to confront systemic racism, the findings could inform policy approaches that prevent discrimination.
Tabellini wrote the paper with Mina Cikara, associate professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Vasiliki Fouka, assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.
Documenting how size matters
Tabellini and colleagues looked at US hate crimes against four racial and ethnic minority groups: Blacks, Hispanics/Latinx, Asians, and Arabs between 1990 and 2010. Using data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Census, the researchers compared the number of reported hate crimes during those years with demographic shifts.
They found that as a minority group climbed in rank, or in size relative to another group, it was more likely to be the target of discrimination. The effect remained constant no matter the group size and proportion, and no matter how fast or slow a group’s growth rate. The data predicts that a group that moves from last to first in rank will experience an almost 62 percent increase in frequency of hate crimes.
“It doesn’t really matter how large a minority group is in absolute values or levels of growth,” says Tabellini. “What really matters is whether you are the largest or not.”
When demographics change, so do attitudes
One question the researchers considered: Would white people still be racist toward the most prominent minority group as new groups arrived and grew? After all, if whites were to hold onto such prejudices, they would risk the misery of being surrounded by an ever-increasing number of “competitors.” Therefore, they theorized, whites might become more inclusive toward smaller groups they deemed less threatening.
“Changes in the composition of society due to changes in the size of one group have a trickle-down effect on the relationship between the majority group and all other groups in the society.”
This is exactly what they found. As minority groups dropped in rank, they were substantially less likely to be targeted with hate crimes.
Tabellini points to a previous study in which whites became less discriminatory toward African Americans as immigration from Mexico expanded between 1960 and 2010. Hate crimes against African Americans dropped during that period and animosity toward Mexican immigrants rose.
“Changes in the composition of society due to changes in the size of one group have a trickle-down effect on the relationship between the majority group and all other groups in the society,” says Tabellini. “And the direction of these changes depends on the characteristics of the growing minority.”
The future of demographic change
The findings could inform the future of race relations. In the United States, the proportion of Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans is quickly outpacing African Americans, meaning that Asian Americans may eventually become the largest nonwhite group.
“If there are political or economic incentives, the majority group might actually become more supportive of minority group members.”
“We’re likely to see increased animosity against the groups that become largest, and perhaps lower discrimination against the groups that were the largest but that eventually become instead, say, the second or third rank in the distribution,” he says.
Discriminatory practices and negative attitudes may even bleed into hiring practices and the labor market. Policymakers, activists, and business leaders can take steps now to prevent it by:
Spreading awareness. Policymakers could initiate awareness campaigns to help white people understand the challenges minority groups face. As African Americans fled the harsh Jim Crow laws of the South between 1940 and 1965, they shared their experiences with white people in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. As that awareness spread, more Northern whites began to express support for civil rights, Tabellini says.
“The arrival of African Americans increased the knowledge among whites of systematic lynchings and brutality against African Americans in the South,” he says.
Building coalitions. Majority and minority groups can find strength and support by banding together, says Tabellini. It’s an approach that has worked in the past: The labor movement actively sought to recruit African Americans at least until the mid-1960s to increase its bargaining power with companies.
“If there are political or economic incentives, the majority group might actually become more supportive of minority group members,” says Tabellini.
Such inter-group interactions, he says, might help foster trust and reduce stereotypes.
Fighting complacency. Racism and discrimination may not be as intransigent as we often imagine, Tabellini says. The more people understand how and why prejudice develops, the more empowered they may feel to fight it.
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