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New Study: How Do White Americans View Muslim Immigrants?

February 27, 2024
Tabitha Bonilla is associate professor of human development and social policy.

White Americans do not support permanent residence (or green cards) for Muslim immigrants – even if they’re white, according to new research coauthored by Northwestern University’s Tabitha Bonilla.

The study, published in the journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and coauthored by Amanda Sahar d’Urso, explored whether Americans hold negative attitudes toward all Muslim immigrants, or whether they are specifically wary of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East.

Americans often conflate Middle Easterners—a racial or ethnic category—with Muslims—religious subjects of Islam. In their study, Bonilla and d’Urso wanted to look at how both religion and race influence white American’s perception of immigrants from the Middle East and/or those who are Muslim.

In the study, they asked people to evaluate immigrants and indicate to whom the United States should give a green card—signaling legal belonging—and how likely it is that the immigrant would assimilate into America—representing cultural belonging.

The researchers found race plays only a small role in influencing how White Americans evaluate Muslim immigrants. White Americans, in fact, don’t really want Muslims of any race to immigrate to the United States, according to the study. They do believe, however, that white Muslims will have an easier time assimilating into American culture.

“The data demonstrate that white Americans have difficulty understanding the differences between race, ethnicity, and religion—and anti-Muslim hate may conflate these categories,” Bonilla said.

Studying perceptions of both race and religion is important because it can help shed light on how people interpret identity—and what information they use to make decisions, Bonilla added. “Identities are complex -- especially when one's self-identification may come into conflict or differ from how other people define them."

Most Americans prefer some level of immigration but have a strong preference for who should be allowed to come, the authors wrote in a blog post for the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Typically, Americans prefer immigrants who are more educated, hold white-collar jobs, and are proficient in English. Cultural identities such as religion is also associated with belonging. Those who are most likely to blend in, the white study respondents said, have master’s degrees and are Christian and Jewish immigrants.

“The evidence thus far indicates that religion supersedes race in how white Americans evaluate immigrants,” they wrote. In the podcast, The Ballpark, Bonilla added: “The public at large has a really hard time conceptualizing identity as more than one thing at a time.

“The quick, easy summary is to just think about Muslims as a race or as a singular component of identity that is the basis for their decision making. This suggests that people may misunderstand, overlook, or ignore aspects of identity when they are more unfamiliar with those identities.”

Bonilla, associate professor of human development and social policy, looks at how the public understands politics, policy and identity.  Previous work has focused on campaign rhetoric, voter mobilization, social movements, and identity using an intersectional lens. Her book, The Importance of Campaign Promises was released in 2022.

Last year, she was awarded the Adaljiza Sosa-Riddell Mentor Award for her work with Latino/a graduate students in political science.

D’Urso is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University and a Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellow of 2023. Her research details how Middle Easterners and North Africans (MENA) have been racialized throughout the 20th and 21st century, despite being legally classified as ‘white’.