Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

"But Aren't We All Poor?" How Whites' Perceptions of Economic Group Threat Influence Racial Attitudes in Michigan

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

"But Aren't We All Poor?" How Whites' Perceptions of Economic Group Threat Influence Racial Attitudes in Michigan

Article excerpt


This paper presents a test of the power threat hypothesis (Blalock 1967). This theory postulates that racial animosity by whites is strongly influenced by their perception of political or economic threat to white power and domination by blacks and other racialethnic minorities (Evans and Giles 1986). As it pertains to economics, the power threat hypothesis asserts that the increasing presence of racial and ethnic minorities increases whites' real or imagined perceptions of economic competition for jobs and income. In turn, this increased competition is argued to increase white hostility toward racial and ethnic minorities, and the desire for social and ideological control of these minorities. Of course, the history of racial and ethnic relations in the United States is replete with several examples of this (Chou and Feagin 2014; Trafzer and Hyer 1999). In this paper, 2009 data from Michigan's State of the State Survey (SOSS) is used to address this issue (Institute for Public Policy and Social Research 2009).

Previous studies have explored the relationship between economic conditions and whites' perceptions of threat in times of economic stability (Eitle, D'Alessio and Stolzenberg 2002). The present paper explores this relationship during a time of relative economic instability. During this time, it is likely that whites' perception of competition, and therefore economic threat, may be heightened, and that the relationship between economic threat and racial attitudes might be more pronounced. Additionally, Michigan serves as an interesting case study through which to explore these relationships given its unique history regarding race, segregation and industrialization.


White prejudice and discrimination towards blacks has long been attributed to perceptions of their political or economic threat (Blalock 1967) and desire to maintain a privileged group position (Blumer 1958). These feelings of threat are often exacerbated as whites observe an increasing number of blacks in their communities. When presented with these perceptions of threat, whites often employ political marginalization, segregation, and threat-based ideologies to justify discriminatory actions towards blacks. These actions increase whites' perceptions of social control and alleviate some of the threat they feel (Blalock 1967). At its inception, Blalock's theory was primarily utilized as a means of explaining black lynchings in the South (Corzine, Creech and Corzine 1983; Reed 1972). These studies found that the number of black lynchings that occurred in Mississippi from 1889-1930 (Reed 1972) and 1889-1931 (Corzine, Creech and Corzine 1983) were highly correlated with an increased presence of blacks. This relationship suggests that whites may have performed lynchings as a means of social control in response to the perceived threat they felt from an increase in the black population in their community. Although criticisms of the empirical studies that have utilized Blalock's power threat theory have been offered (Tolnay, Beck and Massey 1989a; Tolnay, Beck and Massey 1989b), the theoretical significance of Blalock's work remains.

Lynchings and the kind of blatant violence they represent are no longer as widespread as they once were, although violence towards blacks continues through mechanisms such as police brutality (Tyler 2005). In addition, whites continue to respond to perceptions of threat with subtle forms of economic, political and ideological violence (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Feagin 2010; Feagin 2013). Recent research has examined these insidious forms of violence and found support for the theory that whites continue to enact a plethora of social controls in response to increasing black populations and white perceptions of threat. In particular, this research has examined the ways increases in the black population lead to increases in white prejudice (Giles 1977; Swaroop and Krysan 2011, Taylor 1998), negative white racial attitudes (Bobo 2000; Oliver and Mendelberg 2000; Sears, Sidanius and Bobo 2000; Tuch and Martin 1997) and perceived threat (Fossett and Kiecolt 1989; Quillian 1995). …

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