CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Neighbors can be a big part of a person’s life. Some people probably see them more than their own family members at times. Now, researchers at Harvard University say who we live next door to can even influence our political leanings. Their study finds white men who grow up with at least one African-American neighbor are more likely to be Democrats later on.
The team examined individual data on 650,000 white American males in the 1940 U.S. Census. Using machine learning, researchers compared those records to contemporary voter files to search for any possible connections between neighbor diversity as a child and political leanings decades later as an adult.
Notably absent from this report are women from the 1940s. Study authors say the tradition of women changing their surname after marriage makes it very difficult to track them as accurately as men during this time period.
Ultimately, that analysis discovered that white men with a Black neighbor growing up in the 1940s were more likely to register as Democrats decades later in comparison to other white men growing up without an African-American neighbor.
“What we identified here was a way to say does [cross-ethnic exposure] matter over a really long-life period — over a period that people never had a chance to look at before,” says Professor Ryan D. Enos in a university release. “We asked: ‘Is there a relationship between their contact with African Americans early in life and their politics way later in life?’ What we found is that there is. If white Americans are exposed by having a neighbor that is African Americans early in life, they’re more likely to be Democrats, which is the party of racial liberalism in the United States, almost eight decades later.”
A person’s entire neighborhood can influence their beliefs
Diving into greater detail, a white man who had a Black neighbor in 1940 as a child was 1.5 to 4.2 percent more likely to be Democrats by 2005 and 2009. In 2017, that range increased to 2.8 to 5.3 percent. Notably, even the inverse held up as well. Men who grew up with Black neighbors were much less likely to register as Republicans.
Study authors believe their work feels particularly important now, considering just how polarized politics have become in the United States. However, this research only ascertained each man’s registered political party. So, while researchers can’t say for sure, they believe it’s reasonable to assume white men registering as Democrats “skew toward more racially liberal politics and hold other more liberal stances.”
“There is no doubt that racial attitudes are correlated with partisanship in the United States,” Enos explains. “We see this across all kinds of scholarship where, in many ways, the modern parties in the U.S., Democrats and Republicans, their membership was shaped by their position on racial issues….The fact is we know these things drive people towards these parties. That’s not true of everybody but on average, a person that is more racially liberal is more likely to be a Democrat, and that’s just what we see here, something consistent with that.”
Researchers also considered other childhood factors, such as the parents’ political attitudes, but the team still stands by their main finding that interracial contact early in life influenced the politics of these men decades later.
Along with close neighbors, study authors even compared people living in the same neighborhoods. Those results still show a political influence of having a Black neighbor. A Caucasian male living in a neighborhood with Black residents was more likely to be a Democrat than one who didn’t.
Does diversity lead to more harmony?
The Harvard team says this is the first study ever to produce quantifiable evidence suggesting exposure to other races as a child influences long-term political beliefs. They note that the topic of whether or not contact across social groups influences political behavior has been under debate for decades. Technically referred to as the contact hypothesis, many social scientists have long argued that more contact across demographics of all kinds promotes greater societal unity and harmony.
“What this really speaks to is the long-term viability and the long-term stability of diverse societies,” Enos concludes. “We now know there’s a potential now for those to have lifelong consequences in terms of how they shape people’s attitudes.”
The findings appear in the journal Science Advances.