What does it mean to be an American? Since the nation’s founding, Americans have believed that the nation’s core guiding principles are centered in ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality. This values-based conception of American national identity is termed ‘civic identity.’ Citrin and Sears argue, “Americanism is a civil religion,” and under the civic construction of American national identity, “anyone could belong to America if he or she embraced the civil religion, spoken in English” (Citrin & Sears, 2014).
Nativism is a construction of American national identity that arose as “an ethnocentric response [to nineteenth-century immigration] that held new waves of newcomers as unqualified to be true Americans” (Citrin & Sears, 2014). Additionally, “nativism repudiated the inclusiveness of cosmopolitan liberalism in favor of a conception of American identity that limited full membership in the national community to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants” (Citrin & Sears, 2014). Since nativism constructs whiteness an important component of being a “real American,” nativism is closely associated with racial resentment.
My analysis seeks to understand the relationship between nativism and a professed belief in equality, and how these inherently contradictory constructions of national identity are reconciled amongst those who express support for both. I conduct a series of regressions to assess how nativism and a stated belief in equality are related to the perception that different groups in society face discrimination. I specifically examine the correlations between nativism and equality with the perception that discrimination exists toward four separate groups: white men, Christians, Black Americans, and Muslims. Notably, white men and Christians are demographic groups that signify membership within the ‘us’ or in-group of the nativist lens. By contrast, Black Americans and Muslims have faced discrimination in the United States and have frequently been excluded from nativist conceptions of who is a “real American.”
I find that although respondents as a whole agree that belief in equality is central to American national identity, those who express nativist sentiment are more likely to perceive that white men and Christians experience high levels of discrimination and less likely to perceive that Black Americans and Muslims experience high levels of discrimination.
My source for data is the November 2018 Grinnell College National Poll, which was conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, IA. Polling data was collected through telephone interviews of a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, including 828 likely voters in the 2020 general election and 769 self-identified voters in the 2018 midterm election.
I created two index variables using Question 20, in which respondents rate how important a set of characteristics is to being a “real American.” The first index is called “Nativism.” It combines four response options associated with nativism: A) to have been born in America, B) to have lived in America most of one’s life, C) to be able to speak English, and D) to be Christian. The second index variable is called “Equality.” It combines the responses options of: F) to accept people of different racial backgrounds, G) to accept people of different religious backgrounds, and I) to believe in treating people equally. Question 13 presents respondents with different demographic groups in the United States and asks respondents to rank the level of discrimination they think each group experiences. Perceptions of discrimination towards each group range from 0 “Virtually none” to 2 “A lot.” Using Question 13, I create four dependent variables, each of which represent a different demographic group: Muslims, Christians, Black Americans, and white men.
Nativism and Belief in Equality
Respondents to the November 2018 poll show little variation in the degree to which they say they value equality. Ninety percent say “treating people equally” is a “very important” component of being a real American. Similarly, 81 and 78 percent of people say it is “very important” to accept people of different racial and religious backgrounds, respectively. Does a respondent’s stated value of equality have any relationship to whether that person also has nativist attitudes? My analysis suggests the answer is “no.” Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between the belief in equality and nativism, while also controlling for the standard demographic battery. There is no statistically significant relationship between nativism and a stated belief in equality. Overall, the model does a poor job of explaining variation in the value of equality, likely because it is so broadly held among respondents. None of the independent variables except for ideology reaches statistical significance.
Nativism and the Operationalization of Equality
Next, I conduct four separate OLS regressions to test the relationship between nativism, equality, and the perception of discrimination in society. Each regression uses as its dependent variable one of the perceptions of discrimination items: either Christian people, Muslim people, white men, or Black Americans. All four regressions include the Nativism index variable, the Equality index variable, and the standard demographic battery as independent variables. The figure below illustrates regression coefficient estimates (points) with confidence intervals (horizontal lines) for each independent variable. If the line representing a coefficient’s confidence interval does not overlap with zero (vertical line), then statistical evidence supports that the independent variable is significantly associated with the dependent variable. Positive coefficients indicate that an increase in the independent variable is associated with an increase in the dependent variable. Conversely, negative coefficients mean an increase in the independent variable is associated with a decrease in the dependent variable.
The models show a positive and statistically significant correlation between nativism and the belief that white men face discrimination. The correlation between nativism and the belief that Christians face discrimination is also positive but just short of statistical significance. By contrast, perceptions of discrimination towards Muslim people and Black Americans are both negatively associated with nativism, which means that as nativism increases, the perception that Muslim people and Black Americans face “A lot” of discrimination decreases. These regressions provide statistical evidence that respondents who express nativist views are less likely to perceive discrimination of historically oppressed groups and more likely to perceive discrimination of the in-group, defined here as white men and Christians.
By contrast, a stated belief in equality had no significant relationship with the perception that discrimination exists in any model. In other words, a respondent’s belief in equality has no measurable relationship with whether or not they believe that any of the four groups tested face discrimination.
While all respondents share similar support for the importance of equality to American national identity, respondents who express nativist views perceive targets of discrimination in the United States differently from those who do not express nativism. The nativist perspective that white men and Christians experience a lot of discrimination in America suggests that people who share nativist sentiment are likely to support an agenda that claims to address perceived discrimination towards the in-group. The same finding also suggests that those who share nativist sentiment are more likely to believe that historically oppressed groups––such as Black Americans and Muslims––are undeserving of benefits that aim to advance equality because these groups are not perceived by nativist respondents as experiencing high amounts of unequal treatment. Therefore, nativism not only influences perceptions of discrimination but also perceptions of deservingness.
Sophie Shea ’22 is a Political Science major at Grinnell College.
This post was edited for publication by Associate Professor Peter Hanson.
Citrin, J., & Sears, D. (2014). The Challenge of E Pluribus Unum. In American Identity and the
Politics of Multiculturalism (Cambridge Studies in Public Opinion and Political Psychology, pp. 1-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McClosky, H. & Zaller, J. (1984). The American Ethos: Public Attitudes toward Capitalism and
Democracy. Harvard. 18–128.
Regression Table (Figure 1)
Belief in Equality
Standard errors in parentheses
* p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001
Regression Table (Figure 2)
Perceptions of Discrimination
|Christians||Muslims||White Men||Black Americans|
Standard errors in parentheses
* p<0.05, ** p<0.01, *** p<0.001