Dr. Jennifer Richeson discusses the psychology in changing racial dynamics in the U.S.

Written by Maia Anderson, CAS communications intern

photo of Jennifer RichesonYale psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Richeson came to campus to deliver a lecture on Friday March 30. Her talk, titled "Racial and Political Dynamics of an Approaching 'Majority-Minority' United States," focused on the changing racial dynamics in the U.S. as the number of minorities continually increases.

Dr. Richeson is the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Perception and Communication Laboratory at Yale University. She gave her talk to a large audience of students and faculty inside Taylor Auditorium at the Farmer School of Business.

She explained that while race is certainly an issue that has garnered quite a bit of attention in the news, especially since the 2016 election, the psychological facts behind racism and empirical data are not often part of the public's discussion.

Richeson's social-scientific research examines how knowledge of increasing minority populations affects racial attitudes and political outcomes. It analyzes factual data which examines citizens' attitudes towards race.

"People drop the ball on looking at the psychology behind what is going on politically," she said.

The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, a trend which is projected to continue into the future. The Census Bureau predicted minorities to be the majority in 2050, meaning people who are non-Hispanic white will make up less than 50% of the population.

The idea that white people would therefore be the minority if this were to become reality is another issue that Richeson discussed in her lecture. White people are still overwhelmingly in the majority; only by grouping every other race into one category do white people become the minority.

"Why do we think minorities are all the same?" Richeson asked. "49% white does not make you a minority unless you think the other 51% are all the same."

American Citizens' Responses

A substantial portion of Richeson's lecture focused on analyzing how awareness of the changing racial and ethnic dynamics in the U.S. affects citizens' thinking towards minorities. In other words, how does knowing that the Hispanic population is growing in the U.S. affect white people's opinions of racial and ethnic minorities?

According to Richeson, making the U.S. racial shift salient increases racial bias. This leads to negative attitudes towards minorities, endorsement of assimilation (such as English-first policies), opposition to diversity, feeling threatened, and anxiety for the majority groups.

Richeson discussed how diversity can be psychologically threatening to the majority groups. New people lead to new questions, which makes people feel threatened because they are forced to recognize their differences. This is what Richeson describes as the "group status threat."

Changing racial and ethnic dynamics have also affected recent political elections. Richeon discussed President Obama's 2008 win and asked, "Did the Obama coalition set the table for the rise of pro-white politics?"

The shift in racial dynamics caused by President Obama's win caused some people to feel threatened, and according to Richeson's research, people tend to shift towards being more conservative when they feel under psychological threat.

Richeson discussed the ways in which Obama's win set the pathway for the "America First" ideology that is present under the Trump Administration by asking if exposure to information about the changing U.S. racial demographics influences political ideology and political support.

At the end of her lecture, Richeson discussed implications for racial equity in the 21st century seen through her research. According to her findings, increased knowledge of changing racial dynamics could lead to the rise of "white-identity politics," which begs the question of what it means to be an American as the idea of a "typical American" shifts away from the typical white Christian stereotype.

"How different is being American from who you know yourself to be?" Richeson asked. "How comfortable are you with what it means to be American, and how different are you from that?"

Despite the growing minority population, the hierarchy of race has been largely unchanged.

"Letting people know the hierarchy is very much unchanged may dial down the perceived threat," she said.

Indeed, Dr. Richeson's research provides evidence that when white Americans learn about America's "racial shift" but are told that changing demographics will not change social relations or whites' political power, whites' attitudes remain unaffected. In other words, it is only when whites believe that changing demographics will mean a change to America’s social hierarchy that racial attitudes become negative and whites' policy preferences become more conservative.

Student Reactions

Gabrielle Lopez, a microbiology graduate student who attended the lecture, said she was interested in finding empirical data on a topic that has become very important to her.

"Recently I've been interested in the role of minorities in education and also in politics just on a personal level," said Lopez. "I've been reading a lot of black feminist literature on my own, so I was very intrigued when this came up."

Psychology student Teju Ogungbadero attended the event because of her interest in hierarchies and racial dynamics.

"What stood out the most was the fact that Dr. Richeson made the issue a group versus group thing instead of a minority versus majority thing," said Ogungbadero. "It's very easy to say that it's just the majority that does this, but she also went into how minorities showed similar effects."

When asked what she hopes students took away from the lecture, Richeson said that the reality of diversity will be experienced differently by everyone, and the outcome will not always be positive.

"I think that we need to be focused on the reality of how people experience actual diversity and potential increases in diversity and not assume that it's going to be any particular way," said Richeson. "We should not assume it's going to be fine, meaning it's going to be easy for people. It's probably going to be harder than people think, and not to assume it's going to be something everybody's going to be excited about."

Through her research, Richeson aims to promote a deeper knowledge of intergroup relations in addition to finding ways to create cohesive environments that are culturally diverse.

Learn more about Richeson and her research: