Foreign Policy Essay

White Demographic Anxiety Fuels Support for Torture of Terrorism Suspects

By James A. Piazza
Sunday, October 4, 2020, 10:01 AM

Editor’s Note: The changing position of whites in America has profound political implications and played an important role in the rise of President Trump. In a survey experiment, James Piazza of The Pennsylvania State University examines the implications of these changes for public support for torture of terrorism suspects. He finds that participants exposed to information about demographic change are more likely to then support torture, suggesting white demographic anxiety is an important driver of public attitudes.

Daniel Byman


The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the United States will become a “majority-minority” country by 2044. White, non-Hispanic Americans will constitute less than 50 percent of the national population—as is already the case among Americans under the age of 18. Census figures further project that this trend will continue for several decades. By 2060, around 56 percent of Americans will identify as nonwhite or multiracial. This transformation is justly celebrated by many for the economic benefits and cultural richness it will bring. At the same time, however, the projected shift to a majority-minority country drives public opinion in ways that pose clear challenges to the protection of human rights and liberal governance in the United States.

A number of studies have found that America’s growing ethnic and racial diversity produces feelings of anxiety among whites that influences their policy preferences and attitudes. For example, research shows that when white subjects are informed that the United States is projected to become a majority-minority country—a process known as making white demographic decline “salient” to them—they are more likely to express negative attitudes about racial minority groups. White demographic decline salience also prompts whites to support political organizations like the Tea Party and right-wing politicians like Donald Trump that truck in anti-minority and anti-foreigner appeals. When white subjects are told that nonwhites are expected to become a majority, they become more supportive of reducing legal immigration and curtailing or ending affirmative action programs. They are also less likely to support providing welfare benefits to others. What is noteworthy is that these shifts in attitudes tend to occur for both self-described conservative and liberal whites who are informed of the future demographic decline of whites in the United States.

In a recently published study, I explore whether white demographic anxiety in a diversifying national context has a similar effect on attitudes toward terrorism and counterterrorism. Specifically, when undertaking the study I wanted to know whether making white demographic decline salient to study subjects would prompt them to endorse harsh, physically abusive treatment of terrorism suspects. My theoretical hunch was that it would. A body of literature in the social sciences shows that when members of a racial or ethnic group are presented with a threat to their group’s perceived social or political dominance, they become anxious and afraid and are more likely to increase their assessment of threat. This finding has real implications for the public opinion climate regarding the protections of rights in the United States. Research shows that loss of dominant group status coupled with increased perception of threat prompts individuals to endorse more punitive law enforcement, particularly when such measures are directed against minorities, and to disregard the human rights and civil liberties of minorities.

White Anxiety and Support for Torture

To determine whether trends portending the demographic decline of whites in the United States prompts them to endorse physically abusive treatment of terrorism suspects, I conducted an online public opinion experiment. For the experiment, I recruited 652 initial subjects online using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing tool that is frequently used by social scientists to administer surveys and experiments and is regarded as reliable. I limited the main analysis of the study to white adults who were U.S. citizens or residents. I randomly split the subjects into three groups and had the subjects read a contrived press report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The opening segment of the report provided anodyne information about overall U.S. population growth and the aging of the United States. Subjects in the first group, however, were presented with additional Census information and a chart showing that whites are projected to remain a majority through 2030; the data are the Census Bureau’s real projections, but of course the short-term trend does not present the full story. The purpose for this additional information was to not provoke feelings of racial demographic anxiety and to lead them to believe that the demographic status quo was durable for years to come. Subjects in the second group, by contrast, were provided different Census projections: information indicating that whites are projected to become a minority within the United States by 2060 while nonwhites are expected to become the numerically dominant population. The purpose of this different information was to prompt white subjects to feel insecure about their future demographic dominance. The third group of subjects—the control condition—was given no additional information on U.S. population trends beyond the anodyne information given to all subjects.

After subjects read the Census Bureau news reports, I asked them about their support for the application of “techniques such as waterboarding or physical pressure on terrorist suspects.” Subjects then responded using a Likert scale ranging from “strongly support” to “strongly oppose.”

The good news is that, overall, subjects in the study were not particularly supportive of using torture against terrorist suspects. Only around 24.8 percent of subjects across all the groups reported being “strongly” or “somewhat” in support of applying physically abusive treatment against terror suspects. A majority, around 58.1 percent, were opposed to such treatment, with 39.7 percent registering strong opposition; 13.9 percent were neutral; and 2.8 percent declined to answer or said they did not know.

The not so good news is that white demographic anxiety significantly prompted subjects to endorse torture of terrorism suspects. Subjects who were assigned to the second experimental group that had read that the whites are slated to become a minority in the United States by 2060 were almost nine points more likely to either somewhat or strongly support the use of physical abuse against terror suspects than subjects who had read that whites were projected to remain a majority through 2030. Support for torture was a minority opinion in both groups—28.7 percent for the white demographic decline group and 20 percent for the white status quo group—but the difference between whites led to believe America was on the road to becoming a majority-minority country and those who were informed about their continuing dominance is statistically significant.

I also conducted multivariate analyses that controlled for other subject attributes. Older, better educated and, surprisingly, unemployed subjects were less likely to endorse torture of terrorism suspects. Self-described political conservatives and subjects exhibiting authoritarian tendencies were more likely to support the use of physically abusive treatment of suspected terrorists. Gender was not a significant factor in responses.

Finally, I found evidence that the driving force linking white demographic decline salience with support for torture of terrorism subjects is increased fear of terrorism. Subjects who were told that whites are slated to become a minority group in the United States were more likely to report being afraid of terrorism, among other threats. This increased fear of terrorism prompted them to express greater support for the use of physical abuse and torture against terrorism suspects. In other words, when whites realize that nonwhites are projected to become the majority of the country, their sense of threat becomes elevated and they believe terrorism is a greater danger. In technical terms, the effect of white demographic decline salience on support for torture of terror suspects is mediated through increased fear of terrorism.

A New Insight

The study shows that demographic anxiety among white Americans affects how they want to treat terrorism suspects. This finding draws a new link between racial tensions and support for human rights in the United States. I believe that the findings also have some wider implications.

When considering the findings, it is important to recognize that the preservation of human rights and the prevention of the use of torture is not only a normative good. It is also an important strategy for reducing terrorism itself. A number of studies show that countries that violate human rights experience more subsequent terrorism and suffer longer terrorist campaigns. A key factor in preserving human rights in the United States is maintenance of public support for those rights. What the study provides, I hope, is needed information that has not previously been considered about what prompts Americans to endorse and normalize human rights abuses. This potentially provides policymakers, the media and human rights advocates with additional insight into what prompts Americans to assess threats like terrorism and how they are inclined to react to those threats. The study shows that white anxiety about a changing and diversifying America, a seemingly unrelated factor, plays an important role in attitudes about torture.

The author wishes to thank the Department of Political Science and the College of the Liberal Arts at The Pennsylvania State University for providing financial support to undertake the project.