Study: Diversity Makes White Boys Better

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to!

Back in the mid-2000s, I was kind of known for encouraging atheist and skeptic groups to increase the number of women (and non-white people in general) on stage at conferences, because doing so would have a wide range of benefits. I always got a lot of pushback on that, from, let’s be honest, mostly white men but also the occasional white woman, who argued that diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t worth exploring, and that a diverse movement isn’t inherently better than a mostly white male movement.

My most common answer to this was to point out that platforming diverse speakers would help a larger diversity of people feel more welcome and comfortable being a part of the community, which would help the community grow just on a numbers basis. But also, having diverse speakers would allow us to explore issues that a mostly white male group might not even realize are issues — for instance, skeptics rarely concerned themselves with the vast amount of pseudoscience floating around the anti-abortion movement.

One thing I didn’t really mention a lot was how simply being around a diversity of people might make the mostly white male skeptic/atheist community better, more socially liberal people. And yes, just for the record, the science says “more liberal” and I am interpreting that as “better.” You may disagree with that, because you’re a conservative and you don’t think that, for instance, believing black people are poorer and more likely to end up in prison because they’re inferior, or that women shouldn’t be able to make decisions about their own bodies, or that taxing billionaires will improve society, or that people have a basic human right to healthcare and homes and food and education makes you a bad person. That’s a moral argument that I won’t go into here, though I will point out that as an amoral argument copious amounts of research shows that all those “liberal” ideals make society better for everyone, but if you don’t understand that literature then I guess we will just have to disagree on whether or not people becoming more liberal over time is a good thing. But I’m going to continue to refer to it as a good thing for the rest of this video so you may want to just get used to it.

So, this month in ScienceAdvances, political scientists at Harvard have published a pretty bonkers long-term study involving 650,000 Americans, which found that white men who grew up in the 1940s in a neighborhood with at least one black neighbor were more likely to be democrats SEVENTY YEARS LATER. SEVENTY YEARS!!! Just because they had a black neighbor when they were a kid!

Okay, so this paper is called “Childhood cross-ethnic exposure predicts political behavior seven decades later: Evidence from linked administrative data,” and let me just start by saying that’s a garbage headline. The researchers point out “We restrict our searches to men since the common practice of surname changes at marriage during the 20th century makes it quite difficult to link women accurately.”

They were dealing with an absolute shitload of data, so I don’t fault them for taking the easier road of tracking men instead of the entire population. But if researchers published a paper in which they studied half a million people and all of them happened to be women, I guarantee that the word “women” or “females” would appear in the headline and it would be made crystal clear that this isn’t necessarily a phenomenon that applies across all people. This is one of many small clues that tell us that “male” is seen as the default — 650,000 people were studied and all of them came from 49% of the population, but that wasn’t considered important enough to be mentioned in the headline.

On the positive side, when I searched for mainstream news articles about this study, most of them seem to have gotten it right: “White boys who grew up with Black neighbors are more likely to become Democrats, study finds.” But, I digress.

The researchers were interested in this topic of how diversity impacts people over the long term because of a number of studies that have shown that in the short-term, diversification can have negative results. For instance, a non peer-reviewed analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that “The more rapidly a county has diversified since the start of this century, the more likely voters there were to cast ballots for the Republican nominee.” Of course, the start of this century was only 20 years ago, and we’re talking about adults who lived in mostly white communities for most of their lives before seeing an influx of people who weren’t like them, which may have led to a kneejerk racist reaction that people like Donald Trump and other Republican fear-mongers exploited.

So these researchers wanted to know what the results of diversity are long-term — not just how adults react immediately but how a child exposed to diversity may differ from their peers 70 years later.

They looked at census data from 1940, which was gathered by workers going door to door through 99% of the households in America and listed the occupants in order so that neighbors were listed next to one another. This allowed them to see exactly how close white boys were to black families — next door? Two doors down? A few streets over?

Then they looked at census data from California, North Carolina, and Nebraska 60-70 years later. Those states asked for place of birth in their census, which let the researchers accurately connect people from the neighborhoods where they grew up to their current political affiliation. Happily, those three states included boys who grew up all over the US, so they still got a good spread of geography.

And they found that white boys who grew up immediately next door to black families were 1.5 to 5.3% more likely to be registered Democrats 70 years later, compared to boys who didn’t have black neighbors. That’s millions of people who are more likely to believe in racial justice today than would have existed had the US been even more segregated in 1940 than it already was.

I know what you’re thinking: correlation isn’t causation! Maybe those boys had liberal families who chose to live next to black families. Maybe those boys simply held onto the Southern Democrat label which, in 1940, was super racist. Well! They controlled for all of that, by looking just at people who had lived in their residence for at least 5 years prior to the 1940 census, by just looking at northern households, and other subsets of the data and found that in every case, the trend was still crystal clear: having a black neighbor as a kid resulted in a more liberal elderly person. And because the trend was clear for immediate neighbors but didn’t hold for neighbors further away, the researchers say that it’s likely that the effect happens not just because of the black families existing in that neighborhood but because of them interacting with the white boys, who come to see them as fully realized human beings like themselves.

The researchers conclude, “The relationship between early-life experiences and party registration persists over this long period despite the many intervening life experiences during this period—including the population of study being one of the more economically and geographically mobile populations in American history and with a large portion of the men experiencing the social disruption of military service. This persistence suggests a dominating socializing force of early-life experiences. The long-term persistence of this relationship suggests that, despite the short-term social inefficiencies associated with diversity, there may be long-term positive effects for social harmony.”

So hey, calling for a more diverse atheist and skeptic community may have inspired a bunch of white male skeptics and atheists to become virulent woman-haters, but maybe in the long run we’ll be better for it. I’ll check back in with them in another 50 years or so.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button