If something bad happens to that guy over there, I might not care, unless I thought it could happen to me, too. That simple idea explains...

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If something bad happens to that guy over there, I might not care, unless I thought it could happen to me, too. That simple idea explains a lot of politics, including racial and ethnic politics.

Some people fret over this country’s changing demographics, worrying about the political clout of growing minority groups. But the fact is people who feel free to soar as individuals don’t seek the protection of groups.

A couple of professors at Northwestern University have a new study that sheds light on how the experiences of three American minority groups shape their politics.

The study was done by Dennis Chong and Dukhong Kim, using data from a national 2001 survey.

They found significant differences among the groups and especially between African Americans and the other two groups, Asian Americans and Latino Americans.

They started with the idea that large increases in Asian American and Hispanic populations require a new look at race beyond black and white, or the tendency to lump minorities together.

They focused the study on political and social issues that involve race or ethnicity — immigration, affirmative action in education and the workplace, government programs to ensure fairness in a number of areas.

What they measured was support for positions that would benefit the group but cost the individual in increased taxes.

Generally, people with more income and fewer encounters with discrimination are least likely to embrace group causes.

Affluent Asian Americans are significantly more opposed to affirmative action than poorer Asian Americans. More than half of Asian Americans studied were in the upper-income group. Affluent Asian Americans reported significantly fewer incidents of personal discrimination than poorer Asian Americans. But Asian Americans regardless of income said opportunities are open to them.

Affluent Latinos saw more opportunity and reported few discrimination encounters.

But affluent black people were more likely to support affirmative action, feeling their fate was tied to the fate of lower-income black people.

Black people across incomes agreed that “group opportunities and social conditions remain poor despite individual examples of success.”

“When African Americans achieve higher economic status, they continue to experience discrimination and to evaluate their life prospects in racial terms.”

In fact middle-class black people report more personal discrimination than poor black people. Maybe partly because poor black folk aren’t going to fancy restaurants and mixing it up in offices. And if someone treats you like you’re broke and you are, it may not register as discrimination.

Political ideology had a significant impact on Latinos and Asian Americans, but almost none on black people. Liberal, moderate and all but the most conservative black folks want government to pay attention to racial issues.

The researchers pointed out the long history of discrimination that helps shape black people’s perceptions. Even now, none of the other groups experience the level of discrimination that affects black people.

“A majority of African Americans report they have at least occasionally been treated with disrespect, received poor service or encountered people who acted fearfully toward them because of their race. By contrast, a majority of Latinos and Asian Americans say they have never experienced discrimination in these ways.”

And it’s no surprise that immigrants from places where their prospects are poor see more opportunity here. It’s why they come to begin with.

There is a history of discrimination against Asians and Latinos in America, but most Asian American and Latino Americans have arrived during my lifetime, after the civil-rights movement changed the country and also re-enforced in black people a belief in the power of group cohesion.

The researchers concluded differences toward racial and ethnic policies are based on experiences, not some core difference among the groups.

A study of European immigrants would have found divisions based on how accepted each group was. It took longer for Irish and Italian immigrants to assimilate, partly because they faced higher barriers than English or German immigrants.

People respond to exclusion by looking to group advancement as the most viable option. But ethnic group politics makes some folks in the mainstream nervous.

This study left us with some good news for anyone who worries about ethnic politics. Play nice, and race stops being an issue.

“Support for racial and ethnic group interests is strengthened by the failure of society to provide equality of opportunity and weakened by favorable experiences of economic status.”

People who have money in the bank and who are treated fairly don’t worry about race.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.