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Analyzing Economic Self-Interest as a Factor in Racism and Xenophobia

By LIDA TUNESI

A new study by sociology Ph.D. student Cody Melcher shows that people who feel economically insecure will act in their own self-interest to avoid potential hardship. While the findings might sound intuitive, they actually counter contemporary research and have important implications for racism and xenophobia.

Melcher’s article appears in the journal Political Behavior.

There are several keys to Melcher’s work. For one, when he uses the term “economically insecure” he means people who feel insecure or unstable, no matter their financial standing or job security.

“Someone well off can be worried about their economic well-being,” Melcher said, “just as someone who is not well off may not be worried about the economic well-being.”

This is a large part of why Melcher’s results are different than those of others, which assume that everyone with low income will be in favor of wealth redistribution or that people in fields with high unemployment should support better unemployment benefits. But Melcher argues that security is subjective.

With this in mind, Melcher analyzed data from the 2016 American National Election Studies survey. He matched up people who are similar in many ways, like education, religion, and race, but differ in their economic security. Compared to their matches, the insecure ones were much more likely to act in their self-interest, favoring redistributive policies and resenting big businesses and the wealthy. This is another key to the work: “Self-interest” does not necessarily mean selfish, as something that benefits one person could benefit many.

Among white people specifically, Melcher found that economic insecurity leads to a different kind of self-interest: increased racial resentment, increased perception that white people are competing with minorities for some limited number of jobs, and the idea that immigrants “take jobs away from people already here.”

This supports work and ideas that are by no means new, but which don’t have much quantitative evidence–namely, that racism doesn’t come from pure ideology, Melcher said. Rather, people use ideological racism to justify their policy preferences, he explained, citing the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Barbara Fields.

“I provide compelling evidence that racial resentment is strongly related to the affective economic insecurity of whites,” Melcher said.