Why do many US restrictionists use “non-Hispanic whites” as the normative comparison group?

While reviewing the page on Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States, I noticed the following paragraph I’d written a while back while preparing the page:

Inclusion of blacks in native groups compared against?: Restrictionists generally compare the crime rate among Hispanics with that among “non-Hispanic whites” (rather than all Americans, which would include blacks). Supporters of Hispanic immigration claim that a better comparison would be against all Americans (including blacks). These two different types of analysis yield quite different conclusions because the crime rate among blacks in the United States is higher than that among all other racial categories (whites, Hispanics, and the numerically much smaller East Asians, South Asians, and other racial minorities).

At the time I wrote this, I didn’t clearly try to understand why so many restrictionists choose to use “non-Hispanic whites” as the normative comparison standard against which to judge Hispanic crime rates (and, by extension, the crime rates of prospective immigrants). [NOTE: If you read the page, you’ll discover that immigrants have lower crime rates than natives, both in total and when compared for specific ethnicities or specific combinations of ethnicity and high school graduation status. Restrictionists, however, prefer to consider the crime rates of Hispanics rather than immigrants, but this is a topic for another day.]

Here are a few random quotes from restrictionists illustrating this.

Tino Sanandaji comments on a blog post here:

Chinese textiles do not commit crime at 261% of the native white rate. [a reference ot Hispanics committing crimes at 261% the native white rate]

Another comment in a blog post on immigration here:

Hows this for a fear inspiring anecdote: The hispanic incarceration rate is 2.9 times the non-hispanic white rate…. oops, that’s a statistic. And yes, it should inspire fear if you have an ounce of rationality in you.

I haven’t been able to locate an explicit explanation from a restrictionist for why this choice was made, so I’ll just include my guesses here. I see two possible explanations for this choice by restrictionists.

Non-Hispanic white normativity as a principled position

One explanation is that the use of non-Hispanic whites as the normative comparison standard is a principled position. Non-Hispanic whites are treated as the “norm” or “normal”. Any individual or group that does as well as the non-Hispanic white norm is considered average. Any individual or group that does better than the non-Hispanic white norm is considered above average. For instance, in the context of height, groups whose average height is greater than that of non-Hispanic whites would be considered “tall” and groups whose average height is lower than that of non-Hispanic whites would be considered “short.”

Critical race theorists use the term “normativity” in conjunction with ideas of privilege and prejudice, but my use here does not connote either privilege or prejudice, though it might on on occasion be linked to these. It could be a form of “centric bias” whereby people believe that their own selves or immediate surroundings are the norm, standard, or prototype. It does not, however, mean that they automatically disparage different things. A person growing up poor may consider low incomes the “norm” but that does not mean disparagement of high incomes — quite the contrary, the person may be more easily impressed by mid-level incomes than somebody who grew up rich. In the same way, non-Hispanic white normativity does not indicate a disparagement of other groups.

Non-Hispanic white normativity as a trade-off

Here’s a more cynical explanation of non-Hispanic white normativity. Restrictionists, when choosing a comparison group to judge immigrants or immigrant ethnic groups against, have to balance two criteria:

  1. The immigrants or immigrant groups should perform clearly worse on the indicator than the comparison groups.
  2. The comparison group should be something that a large number of their readers can identify with.

In an ideal world, immigrant groups would show performance that’s clearly worse than natives on the whole, and hence immigrant groups could be compared directly against natives, or “all Americans” — this would appeal to a maximum number of Americans.

However, there are many cases, such as crime, where immigrants, and immigrant ethnic groups, don’t perform worse than natives on the whole in a clear way. Restrictionists thus need to narrow down the definition of native. At one extreme, the restrictionist could narrow down to “upper middle class college educated whites” or “Ph.D. Ashkenazi Jews” as a comparison group and immigrants/immigrant ethnic groups would perform quite badly in comparison. While this is great for (1), it compromises on (2) — the comparison group is too small and few readers would identify with it. The middle ground of choosing “non-Hispanic whites” or “native non-Hispanic whites” yields a sweet spot that makes immigrant groups look reasonably bad by comparison, and also allows a large number of readers to identify with the comparison group.

The chart featured at the top of this post is a breakdown of the US incarceration rate by race, as of 2006. Authored by the November Coalition and released into the public domain; found on Wikimedia Commons.

Stereotyping restrictionists and invoking disgust reactions

I’ve blogged in the past about accusations of racism in the immigration debate and how they may detract from substantive debate. In that earlier blog post, I concentrated on the reports that the Southern Poverty Law Center prepared on the “racist” and “white nationalist” agendas behind a number of prominent restrictionist groups such as VDARE, CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA. While this kind of digging around is SPLC’s job (and they seem to not shy of exposing real and potential hate groups of all races, cultures, and belief systems, as is evident from their website), I expressed the view that advocates of open borders would do better to concentrate on the actual citizenist arguments made by restrictionists and ignore these hidden agendas. I wish to elaborate on that theme.

Here are some examples. An article titled The Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America by Peter Schrag (the full article is a 12-page PDF, the link goes to its cover page) says:

It’s hardly news that the complaints of our latter-day nativists and immigration restrictionists—from Sam Huntington to Rush Limbaugh, from FAIR to V-DARE—resonate with the nativist arguments of some three centuries of American history. Often, as most of us should know, the immigrants who were demeaned by one generation were the parents and grandparents of the successes of the next generation. Perhaps, not paradoxically, many of them, or their children and grandchildren, later joined those who attacked and disparaged the next arrivals, or would-be arrivals, with the same vehemence that had been leveled against them or their forebears.


Tanton’s organizations were also the primary generators of the millions of faxes and e‐mails that were major elements in the defeat of the comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. In Congress, both were accomplished with the threat of filibusters, and by putting the immigrants’ face on the often inchoate economic and social anxieties—the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor—that might otherwise have been directed at their real causes.

Here also there was broad precedence in the economic and social turmoil arising in the new industrial, urban America at the turn of the twentieth century. The descriptions of Mexicans taking jobs away from American workers, renting houses meant for small families, crowding them with 12 or 14 people and jamming up their driveways with junk cars, echoed the rhetoric of 1900 about inferior people brought in as scabs, crowding tenements, bringing disease, crime and anarchy, now become terrorism, who would endanger the nation and lower living standards to what the progressive sociologist Edward A. Ross a century ago would have called their own “pigsty mode of life.”

In the age of Obama, the overt, nearly ubiquitous racialism of the Victorian era, like eugenic science, is largely passé and certainly no longer respectable. Eugenic sterilization is gone. The race‐based national origins immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson‐Reed immigration act have been formally repealed. But the restrictionists’ arguments echo, often to an astonishing degree, the theories and warnings of their nativist forbears of the past century and a half.

This article of the Immigration Policy Center is not an isolated instance. The introduction of Jason Riley’s Let Them In has this passage:

Steve King, a congressman from Iowa, compares Mexican aliens to livestock. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman who sports T-shirts announcing that AMERICA IS FULL, says Hispanic immigrants have turned Miami into a “Third World Country.” And Don Goldwater, nephew of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and an unsuccessful candidate for governor in Arizona, has called for interring illegal immigrants in concentration camps and pressing them into forced labor building a wall across the southern U.S. border.

A little later, Riley writes:

Nativists warn that the brown influx from Mexico is soiling our Anglo-American cultural fabric, damaging our social mores, and facilitating a U.S. identity crisis. Anti-immigrant screeds with hysterial titles like Invasion by Michelle Malkin and State of Emergency by Pat Buchanan have become best-sellers. Tomes by serious academics like Samuel Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson make the same arguments using bigger words and giving the cruder polemicists some intellectual cover.

Now, my thoughts.

I think proponents of open borders are correct in pointing out that a number of restrictionists craft their arguments in a manner as to invoke disgust reactions against immigrants and to bolster anti-immigrant sentiment. Continue reading “Stereotyping restrictionists and invoking disgust reactions” »