Our study explores phenotypic prejudice, which means prejudice related to aspects of appearance that denote a person’s race. We examine this topic within a group that has received little scholarly attention in this regard – Mexican migrants to the United States. Overall, our findings suggest that phenotypic prejudice does matter, and that the way prejudice works may change over time.
Ideally, voters would rely on candidates and parties’ platforms, proposals, and performance when making their electoral choice. But research on voting behavior shows that, depending on the context, non-political factors such as gender, class, and race also affect voters’ decision on the ballot. In the case of Latin America, and Mexico in particular, many scholars have hypothesized that more inclusive racial ideologies could make race less important for electoral choice. Others have begun to question this idea as evidence of racial appearance overlapping with other dimensions like socioeconomic status or political representation has emerged.
Our work contributes to this nascent research agenda on the political consequences of phenotypic prejudice in places where most people identify as members of the same racial group, like in Mexico. At the same time, we contribute to the research of the effect of new contexts on people’s attitudes as we explore the effect of tenure in the U.S. on migrants’ political expression of phenotypic prejudice.
Our results are based on an experiment that manipulated the appearance of a candidate supposedly competing for a governorship in the Mexican state of Nayarit. In total there were four conditions: the control that did not include a picture of the candidate and three conditions in which the candidate’s racial appearance was either white, indigenous, or mixed (mestizo).
The experiment was part of a random household survey of San Diego County, in which door-to-door canvassers contacted respondents who were born in Mexico and had resided in the United States for at least two months. This methodology allows us to generate a random sample, an advantage relative to many other experiments that use convenience samples. At the same time, we focus on a hard-to-reach population often neglected in academic research on vote choice.
Our findings show that migrants express a stronger preference for the indigenous-looking candidate, and they tend to think of the white and mestizo candidates as more ideologically conservative than the control. We interpret this as evidence that appearance may be signaling shared socio-economic interests which link voters to candidates. Our final result focused on migrants’ tenure in the U.S. Specifically, we find that migrants who have lived in the U.S. longer show greater support for the white candidate.
This last finding is particularly interesting, but also challenging methodologically. The ideal approach would be to conduct a panel survey, as cohorts of migrants might vary on relevant political, social, and economical factors. Data limitations force us to use a single cross section, and compare those with greater tenure in the U.S. to those who have been in the U.S. for a shorter time. The relevant theoretical question remains – how could tenure in the U.S. affect migrants’ phenotypic prejudice? Our cross-sectional evidence suggests that, as they spend longer in the United States, migrants may come to adopt a racial ideology that privileges whiteness.
This study contributes to the study of race and politics from a comparative perspective, as well as the study of the effects of migration on citizens’ political behavior. Our results underscore the need to incorporate non-political factors, such as race, into the study of electoral behavior even in societies whose racial ideology tends to be more inclusive.