Race molds Americans’ views on global trade more than wealth

January 19, 2021
White Americans support global trade less than nonwhites, according to recent date. (AP Photo/Gideon Maundo)

White Americans support global trade less than nonwhites, according to recent date. (AP Photo/Gideon Maundo)

White Americans have grown less supportive of international trade over the past decade than racial minorities in the U.S. regardless of their economic status, a new study found, contrary to prevailing economic theories that suggest increased affluence leads to a less protectionist reaction to globalization.

This gap, captured via 10 national surveys spanning a 12-year period, shows that Americans’ racial and ethnic ties tend to overshadow economic factors in predicting their views on trade, according to the paper, published last month in Political Psychology.

Part of a forthcoming book, the paper suggests that growing white anxiety about racial “outgroups” may be a key contributor to the increasingly divergent views, explained Diana Mutz, lead author of the study and the Samuel A. Stouffer professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We’re seeing that it’s actually not about what kind of job you have, but rather how you feel about what defines America as an ingroup,” Mutz told The Academic Times. “So if you have folks who feel like to be American is to be white, Christian, etc., they have more negative attitudes toward trading with Mexico, with China and so forth.”

Existing economic scholarship on trade not only rarely touched on the role of race, but the few studies that have concluded that minorities will be more averse to international trade given their heightened economic vulnerability, Mutz and her colleagues wrote. In general, they said, one would assume that the more affluent a voter is, the more likely they are to support free trade and vice versa.

“Economists look strictly at people, occupations, their income and those sorts of things. They view trade as very much an economic issue,” Mutz said. In reality, she added, “It’s a far more symbolic kind of issue in people’s minds than it is one where they’re calculating their personal self-interest and so forth.”

Drawing on existing research including their own, the authors offer an alternative explanation as to why race accounts for the disparity in trade support by laying out a set of psychological dispositions linked to one’s racial identity and attitudes.

Notably, the authors argue that trade support is influenced by one’s social dominance, or orientation to group-based inequality, their relation to the dominant ingroup and how their social status influences their sense of national attachment.

As such, whites are much more likely to oppose trade, regardless of their own economic status, given that they have a stronger sense of national belonging and are more likely to have an ethnocentric view on what constitutes being “American,” the authors write. 

“Domestic attitudes, how people feel about ingroups and outgroups that are similar and different from them in the U.S., influences their attitudes toward faraway countries,” Mutz explained. “To me, that’s somewhat surprising, but it makes sense that people have different levels of comfort with” factors like racial identity.

Through an analysis of multiple surveys conducted between 2004 and 2017, the authors found that nonwhite Americans favor international trade, both generally and in the context of specific agreements, at a statistically significantly higher rate than whites.

The standardized size of the racial gap for general views on trade between whites and nonwhites grew to 5.98 in 2016 from 3.51 in 2007, further suggesting a growing racial polarization toward international trade.

The difference appears more starkly when respondents were asked about the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, for instance. On an indexed scale from 0 to 1 denoting an ascending level of support for the deal, the average support among minorities was roughly 0.68 compared to 0.5 among whites in 2017. In 2008, minorities indicated support of 0.52 compared to 0.39 among whites.

White Americans also showed a “significantly greater” aversion to accepting imports from countries perceived as majority-nonwhite by population compared to nonwhite Americans, the authors wrote.

Mutz and her team found that while trade has become a more racialized issue in the late 2000s, the racial gap in trade support also became more closely tied to party identification. Nonwhite Americans are more likely than whites to identify as Democrats, who in turn tend to espouse more pro-trade rhetoric than Republicans.

This contrasts with the parties’ historically flipped positions on trade, in which the Democratic Party took on a more protectionist stance since World War II due to influence from labor unions in the U.S.

“The complexion of the two political parties has changed a lot during this time,” Mutz said, in terms of education levels, racial diversity and other related factors. “This is a shift that matters because people get cues from party leaders about where to stand on issues, particularly issues that are kind of complex like trade is.”

Moreover, the authors found that the racial gap was statistically significant as early as 2004, signaling that outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive protectionist rhetoric was not the sole catalyst for nonwhite Americans’ increasingly pro-trade views. 

Yet, Trump presents a notable aberration in the backdrop of this study, Mutz said. She observed that Republicans “became overwhelmingly pro-trade” since Trump introduced the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, in 2018.

“One of the things that happened around the time we finished that article that is interesting is … everybody we talked to, and I mean members of the public, thought [the USMCA] was essentially NAFTA 2.0,” Mutz said.

“Even though nothing much changed — none of those manufacturing jobs had come back — basically, there was no accountability for the negative impacts of globalization,” she added. “So one of the patterns that we see, and this is something I also explore in the book, is that it matters a lot to people whose party is in power.”

Mutz suspects that with Trump on his way out of office, Republicans may suddenly pivot once more to take a more hostile view toward trade, reflecting what she calls a “party-in-power” effect. She and her team hope to return to the field for additional sampling of trade-related survey data.

While this study relies on nationally representative samples of whites and minorities in general in the U.S., most of the samples collected do not break into different racial groups such as Black and Latino, and may not be generalized to other developed economies.

In Canada, for instance, where Mutz has also collected survey data relating to trade, the national identity is more grounded in the idea of cultural incorporation and diversity rather than homogeneity, which links greater national pride to greater trade support.

“It’s fascinating in a way, because I think it speaks to our country’s failure to effectively incorporate minorities into the sense of pride in America and the sense that they are an important part of this country, to the same extent that some other countries have,” Mutz said.

The paper, “The Racialization of International Trade,” was published Dec. 15, 2020, in Political Psychology. It was authored by Diana Mutz, the Samuel A. Stouffer professor of political science and communication at the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at the University of Pennsylvania; Edward Mansifled, the Hum Rosen professor of political science and director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania; and Eunji Kim, an assistant professor of American public opinion, political communication and political psychology at Vanderbilt University. It was written as part of Mutz’s forthcoming book titled, “Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Foreign Trade,” set to be published this spring by the Princeton University Press.

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