Dowell Myers, Olivia Araiza, Sean McElwee, john a. powell, Shakil Choudhury

Racial Anxiety, Increasing Diversity, and Politics of Fear of the Other

By: Juan Sebastian Arias

Studies have shown that increased racial diversity leads to increased racial anxiety, a trend that will only continue as the country grows more diverse. In framing this breakout panel on racial anxiety, Haas Institute Director john a. powell explained that anxiety can be hard to define, but essentially consists of an acute sense of loss of self. As people perceive change coming to them that they cannot control, they feel an increased sense of ‘racial anxiety,’ or an anxiety of the Other. Yet anxiety itself is not bad. If mediated positively, anxiety can lead to bridging ties and empathy between groups. But if mediated negatively, it can lead to breaking ties, where others are seen as threats or competitors in a zero-sum calculus. Racial anxiety is fundamentally widespread and can even be found in communities of color.

 Panelist Sean McElwee, Policy Analyst at Demos, connected racial anxiety to the role of racism in determining the 2016 US presidential election. He presented data showing that a backlash to rising diversity drove Donald Trump’s support. In the 2016 election, 11 percent of Obama voters switched to Trump, while only 5 percent of Romney voters switched to Clinton. Survey data identified racial attitudes as the most important factor in predicting this switch, with the strongest predictor of a switch to Trump among those with higher racial anxiety. On the flip side, he found no evidence that indicators of economic hardship made voters more likely to support Trump – which provides counter evidence to the population notion that working class anxiety led people to support Trump. Looking forward, McElwee concluded that we’ll see greater political polarization along racial attitudes and that we will need to bring new voters into the electorate for better chances in future elections.

 Dowell Myers, demography and urban planning professor at the USC School of Policy, offered one way to mediate racial anxieties with a new narrative that helps older white voters see the great benefits in diversity. By focusing on the challenges our country will face as the number of people over 65 grows much faster than that of people who are in prime working age, he argued that investing in all youth, especially youth of color, is one of the only solutions. We don’t have enough youth to support the rising numbers of retirees, so we will need to really support the best outcomes for the entire future workforce. Otherwise, drastic changes will be needed to sustain the current retirement system. This is just an example of how to change the narrative we tell out of pending demographic shifts to support racial equity.

 Lastly, educator and consultant Shakil Choudhury spoke about the importance of emotional awareness and literacy among the social justice movement. He emphasized the role of emotions as invisible yet controlling drivers for our behaviors and decisions. With respect to our emotions related to other, we tend to have empathy for those most like us. In contrast, we also have anxiety and fear recorded in the amygdala which are then triggered by others. This tendency to dehumanize others is loaded in our brains and is something we need to mindfully work against, Shakil said. He called on activists to make activist spaces irresistibly humanizing, so that people will be drawn to the social justice movement, instead of feeling pushed out. He named four activist traps to avoid: poor self-care that leads to burnout, despair from going beyond critical to cynical, simplification of theory into truth, and the dehumanizing of allies and opponents.


photo by Eric Arnold, see more photos on our Facebook page.