RSS
Why anti-immigrant fervor is destined to become a relic of the past
Bigotry isn't going away anytime soon. But status-quo bias is.
 
A busy street in Birmingham, England. 
A busy street in Birmingham, England.  (Andrew Fox/Corbis)

The immigration wave of the last decade is making people in England more racist, according to a sensational new poll. If this were true, it would indeed be very bad news for those, like me, who favor less restrictionism and freer cross-border flows. Fortunately, it is not true.

Indeed, if anything, widespread anti-immigrant sentiment is destined to become a relic of the past.

The survey, conducted by NatCen for the British Social Attitudes, found that self-declared levels of prejudice (a curious metric!) among Brits had increased 5 percentage points, from 25 percent in 2001 to 30 percent last year — with 3 percent of Brits admitting to feeling "very" prejudiced and 27 percent at least a "little" prejudiced against people of another race.

Partly this is due to the anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11, the study's authors explained. But it was also, they reckoned, a backlash to greater immigration, given that 70-plus percent of respondents also wanted immigration levels slashed. (Since joining the European Union, Britain has allowed more people from Eastern Europe, including recently Romania and Bulgaria, to work in the country without work permits. The rate of migration to England in 2012 — 2.59 immigrants for every 1,000 members of the population — was two times more than in 2000, although still lower than Canada's (5.65) and the United States' (3.62).)

That anti-immigration sentiment ebbs and flows with immigration rates makes intuitive sense — except that another British survey, conducted by the highly regarded Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute earlier this year, found this relationship to be far from airtight. In 1978, 70 percent of the British public agreed that the country was in danger of "being swamped" by other cultures, when net migration was in fact "nada" — as in zero! About a decade later, in 1989, 63 percent of Brits felt that there were "too many immigrants" in the country when net migration was still relatively low.

This suggests that anti-immigration sentiment is the given. It is the default condition of humanity. So if you go looking for it, you'll find it. The real news, buried under sensationalistic headlines hell bent on berating Brits for racism, is what such surveys reveal about when, where, and among whom such feelings are declining.

For starters, if 2011 instead of 2001 was used as the benchmark year, one could use the NatCen data to argue even more plausibly that racism in Britain is waning, not rising. That's because in 2011, 38 percent of Brits — 8 percentage points more than now — admitted to being prejudiced. But playing that up wouldn't be emotionally satisfying for Britain's liberal press.

What's more, NatCen found a clear generational trend of declining anti-immigrant feelings, with 37 percent of those born before 1929 — the so-called interwar generation — expressing hostility, compared to 34 percent of Baby Boomers, 30 percent of Generation X members, and 25 percent of Generation Yers. Also, skilled professionals exhibited the least antipathy (26 percent) toward immigrants and unskilled manual laborers the most (41 percent).

All of this suggests that as older generations depart from the scene and the economy moves from an industrial to a service base, anti-immigrant sentiments will naturally fade.

The Kingsmead Primary School 2012 roster: 85 percent of pupils speak English as a second language. (Gideon Mendel/In Pictures/Corbis)

But the survey's most interesting finding was this: If high immigration rates inevitably mean more anti-immigrant feelings, then such sentiments would be most prevalent in the most immigrant-dense places. After all, immigrants increase (the perceived) competition for local jobs and strain public services such as schools and hospitals.

In fact, the opposite is the case: Hostility to immigrants, even among the native born, is least pronounced in places with the biggest immigrant populations. In Inner London, a truly international city, only 16 percent of respondents admitted prejudice, a 17-point decline since 2000. Outer London likewise registered a decline.

England's experience is perfectly consistent with America's, where the most anti-immigrant states are those with the fewest immigrants — and vice versa. USA Survey reported some years back that in New York and California, the most immigrant-dense states, far fewer people felt that "immigrants take away American jobs" and far more felt that they do "jobs Americans won't do" than in immigrant-poor states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, and, my own, Michigan.

Contact with immigrants humanizes them, making it harder to scapegoat them for existential anxieties created by a fast-changing world. It also creates a co-dependence, making it harder to fixate on the downside of foreigners when, say, professional moms rely on them for baby-sitting or accounting or other services.

But there's a deeper reason, too: Much anti-immigrant sentiment does not stem from racism, nativism, xenophobia, or any other affirmative hatred of foreigners — although there is certainly an element of that. Rather, much anti-immigrant fervor stems from what George Mason University's Bryan Caplan has dubbed the "status-quo bias" — a preference for the status quo because it is the status quo.

People have a natural affinity for a world that they know because it is hard for them to imagine the alternative. And what they've known are linguistically, culturally, and ethnically/racially homogeneous social arrangements stemming from a tribal or kinship-based past. Active bigotry and preference for the ethnically familiar are not the same thing, and advocates of immigration, myself included, who conflate the two do their cause no favor.

But as mass migration, still a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms, makes cosmopolitan communities more of a norm, the status-quo bias will ineluctably swing. As natives begin to directly observe and experience the advantages of diversity, acceptance of immigrants will increase, even turning into an open embrace perhaps. (I'm writing this piece from a conference called Cities of Migration, organized by Canada's Maytree Foundation and the German Marshall Fund in immigrant-rich Berlin, where this celebration of immigrants and their economic and cultural contributions is palpable.)

To be sure, this transition won't be smooth or automatic. There will be the occasional backlash.

But, on the whole, emerging trends suggest that John Lennon might have been more right than wrong: A relatively borderless world that allows free movement of people will also be more — not less — tolerant. Why? Because immigrants carry with them their own antidote to "prejudice."

That's good news — which is why you won't see it emblazoned across newspapers. Imagine that!

 
Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets, and a weekly columnist here at The Week. She is also a Bloomberg View contributor and writes regularly for Reason, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and numerous other publications. She considers herself to be a progressive libertarian and an agnostic with Buddhist longings and a Sufi soul.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week