Ricochet: How Elite Discourse Politicizes Racial and Ethnic Identities

Abstract

Political elites often discuss racial/ethnic outgroups in a critical light. I claim this discourse raises the salience of group identity while impugning its worth, thus inducing differential political reactions among high and low identifying group members. Specifically, high identifiers will engage in political efforts that restore their identity’s positive value by displaying ingroup favoritism and challenging the source of their group’s devaluation. In contrast, low identifiers will actively decline political opportunities to bolster their group’s devalued status. Using a national survey experiment, I randomly assigned eligible but unregistered Latino voters to a control group without elite discourse; a non-devaluing condition with elite discourse focused on illegal immigration; or, a devaluing condition with elite discourse focused on illegal immigration and critical of illegal immigrants. High identifying Latinos in the devaluing condition expressed greater pro-Latino political attitudes and a stronger intention to register and vote in a pending presidential election. This dynamic was absent in the other conditions and unrelated to Latinos’ partisan identity. These results suggest an identity-to-politics link is robustly forged among high identifying group members when they sense a devaluation of their group.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    I use identification, commitment, and attachment interchangeably throughout the paper (cf. Ellemers et al. 2002).

  2. 2.

    My use of social identity theory and self-categorization theory emphasizes the synergy between both lines of work. This does not mean there are no differences between them (Huddy 2001).

  3. 3.

    This is not to say that “Reluctants” and “Recruits” are not worthy of systematic study. However, time and resource constraints limited my ability to simultaneously examine all three of these Latino sub-electorates within a single study. For example, studying “Reluctants” would require items (e.g., decision to naturalize) that could not be added without removing other questions essential to my hypothesis tests (i.e., Latino identity).

  4. 4.

    Besides age and citizenship status, prior criminal history can bar people from voting, though there is wide variation in how states apply this last criterion (Uggen et al. 2012). Given this topic’s sensitivity, I did not ask about criminal history to avoid affecting data quality through lower cooperation rates and/or attrition. Using available data, I assess some of the tradeoffs of my decision (Table B, in Supporting Information). Those results suggest the effects I uncover are, at worst, conservative estimates of the phenomenon I am interested in.

  5. 5.

    In the full sample, the distribution of identity strength is: 26 %-(strongly agree); 27 %-(somewhat agree); 21 %-(somewhat disagree); and 26 %-(strongly disagree), with no reliable difference in identity levels between unregistered Latinos (M = 2.42) and all other Latinos in the survey (M = 2.48) (t = 0.68, p = 0.50).

  6. 6.

    Beyond Garcia Bedolla (2005), others have shown that the association between Latinos and illegal immigration is regularly transmitted by news media. For example, in other research, I show that news reports on Latino illegal immigration outweigh reports on Latino legal immigration by a ratio of about 90–10 % (Pérez 2013a). This pattern is part of a larger trend in contemporary U.S. immigration news coverage, which often focuses on Latino rather than non-Latino groups (Valentino et al. 2013).

  7. 7.

    The polychoric correlation between both items is robust and reliable (ρ = 0.42, P < 0.001). This index originally ran continuously from 2 to 8 in 1-point increments. I transform this scale to run continuously from 0 to 1 to facilitate the interpretation of my pending interactive results (Kam and Franzese 2007, p. 20–21; Achen 1982, p. 77).

  8. 8.

    Due to rounding, these percentages sum to 99 %, rather than 100 %.

  9. 9.

    That is, individuals in each experimental condition are alike in all observable and unobservable characteristics, chance variations aside (Mutz 2011). Hence, there is less need to control for attributes that do not vary between individuals.

  10. 10.

    Given the directional nature of my hypothesis—i.e., a positive interaction between identity and devaluing rhetoric—and the fact that this type of dynamic has been observed in independent lab studies done by social psychologists (Ellemers et al. 2002; Branscombe et al. 1999b), I use one-tailed significance tests when interpreting the pending interactive results. However, using two-tailed tests of significance leaves my conclusions unchanged.

  11. 11.

    This proposed test is especially relevant here because ethnic and partisan identities are not randomly assigned, as it is difficult to experimentally manipulate identity levels in a way deemed externally valid by political scientists. Thus, consistent with prior studies utilizing SIT (e.g., Doosje et al. 1995, 1999), I examine the extent to which observed levels of Latino and partisan identity condition the response to my randomly assigned treatment.

  12. 12.

    In fact, ancillary analyses reveal that this conclusion does not change if we compare Mexican Latinos to non-Mexican Latinos (Table C, in Supporting Information).

  13. 13.

    Once again, ancillary analyses reveal that this conclusion does not change if we compare Mexican Latinos to non-Mexican Latinos (Table C, in Supporting Information)..

  14. 14.

    Indeed, for pro-Latino attitude and register to vote, the interaction between ethnic identity and devaluing rhetoric yields effect sizes that are on the strong side. Cohen’s d values around 0.20, 0.50, and 0.80 are considered small, medium, and large, respectively (Cohen 1988). Both of my analyses yield Cohen’s d ≥ 0.75. For further information, see Table A (in Supporting Information)..

  15. 15.

    One might wonder whether the dynamic I have unearthed explains other aspects of politics among all Latinos—not just those that are unregistered to vote. It appears to. In a separate study that examines registered and unregistered Latinos (Pérez 2013b), I find that devaluing rhetoric produces greater ethnocentrism among high identifying Latinos. Statistically, this pattern is no different among unregistered Latinos than among the fuller sample of Latinos (Table D, in Supporting Information). I thank reviewer 2 for constructive advice on this point.

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Acknowledgments

I express my deepest gratitude to Cindy Kam for offering valuable advice and encouragement throughout this project. I also thank Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Jennifer Merolla, and Ricardo Ramírez for constructive feedback on an earlier version of this paper. Finally, for their insightful suggestions, I thank my reviewers and participants in the Center for New Institutional Social Sciences (CNISS) seminar at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium (PRIEC) meeting at U.C. Berkeley.

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The author declares he has no conflict of interest.

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This study complies with relevant U.S. laws.

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Pérez, E.O. Ricochet: How Elite Discourse Politicizes Racial and Ethnic Identities. Polit Behav 37, 155–180 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-013-9262-0

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Keywords

  • Social identity theory (SIT)
  • Racial and ethnic politics
  • Latino politics
  • Survey experiments