Stereotypes Persist Even Where Immigrants Don't

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It's never been easy to be part of the huddled masses. The Statue of Liberty may not be choosy about the wretched refuse she allows in the door, but Americans haven't always been so hospitable. Immigrants from Ireland landed in the U.S. in the 1850s only to find shop windows festooned with signs reading "No Irish Need Apply." The Chinese toiled to build our transcontinental railroad in the 1860s only to see the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act signed in 1882, suspending further immigration. The unwritten rule was simple: pretty much anyone was welcome, except the newest group — or at least the one arriving in the greatest numbers — who would have a harder go of things.

All that's changed, though, right? In our new postracial world, haven't we risen above such petty prejudice? Actually, no, we haven't. But the good news is, we're doing better than you might expect. According to a new study released by a pair of sociology professors, the battle between Lady Liberty and Lou Dobbs is now being fought to a draw, and our better angels may slowly be prevailing.

The research, conducted by Jeffrey Timberlake of the University of Cincinnati and Rhys Williams of Loyola University Chicago, was presented this week at the annual convention of the American Sociological Association, in San Francisco. In order to take America's temperature on the often overheated topic of immigrants, the researchers went to an unlikely place: Ohio.

For all its purple-state, heartland rep, large portions of Ohio are still very monochrome — which is to say white — and mostly untouched by on-the-ground experience with people not born in the U.S. Local opinions about immigrants would thus presumably be shaped mostly by what people read or see on TV, combined with a general sense of America's shared melting-pot history. "This makes Ohio ideal for understanding public attitudes ... largely unaffected by actual immigrant levels," the researchers wrote.

Timberlake and Rhys surveyed more than 2,100 Ohioans about their attitudes toward four groups: Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latinos, specifically asking them about each group's intelligence, income levels, self-sufficiency, ability to assimilate and proclivity toward violence. The results were often surprising — and often not.

Uniformly, Asians finished first in the wealth, intelligence and self-sufficiency categories, followed by Europeans and Middle Easterners, with Latinos finishing last. Asians fell a notch, to second, in willingness to assimilate, with Europeans taking the top spot. When it came to violence, the order was reversed: Latinos on top, then Middle Easterners, then Europeans and Asians.

"In some respects, this was exactly what we expected," says Timberlake. The stereotypes of wealthy, studious Asians and ready-to-fit-in Europeans have been fixed in the public mind for years now, and endure even in homogenous communities in which the need for real assimilation ended long ago.

The extremely low marks for Latinos, on the other hand, are of more recent vintage. Immigrants from south of the border may never have enjoyed the same cultural cachet as, say, those from France or England, but the cratering of their numbers is almost surely the result of more than two years of campaign-trail rhetoric and cable fulminations on the issue of illegal Mexican immigrants. "I can't say for certain how the data would have been different in the pre–Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck era," says Timberlake, "but it seems we're seeing the reflection of the general debate."

Still, there's happy news within the findings. Timberlake was especially pleased by the relatively positive marks given Middle Easterners — hardly something that would have been expected after Sept. 11. "Even in the post-9/11 context, we're not seeing Middle Easterners stirring much fear, or at least as much as we thought," says Timberlake. Indeed, they stir a fair amount of respect, with 75% of respondents not questioning their self-sufficiency, 81% having no quarrel with their intelligence and 69% rejecting the stereotype that they are generally poor.

Similarly, though Asians must often combat a reputation for standoffishness, just 38% of Ohioans saw them that way. And while only 31% of respondents believed Latinos were self-sufficient enough to get by without government handouts, another 23% had no opinion, meaning the idea that immigrants from the Spanish-speaking world cannot get by without the federal dole is now, at least, a minority view.

That may be small consolation for the Latino community, which just saw one of its members ascend to the Supreme Court but must still struggle for basic respect. Yet the study does suggest ways to fix the problem. For one thing, Timberlake says, the cable ranters should pipe down — or the audience should switch them off. "These people are entertainers seeking attention," he says. "I don't see the value of ginning up hatred of a particular group. All that does is diminish our chance to solve the problem."

Hard economic times — and the desperation with which people who still have jobs guard them — may also be exacerbating the problem. So as the fiscal crisis eases, the anti-immigrant bias may too. Most important, says Timberlake, is to remember U.S. history. Every immigrant group that was demonized and ostracized eventually overcame the prejudice and became part of the nation's cultural quilt. "We've seen this movie before," he says. It almost always ends happily.