Xenophobia on the Rise

It’s important to note that the public opinion data I’m about to discuss was collected before the terrorist attacks in Paris last week. Seems xenophobia was already on the rise, per a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute. Here’s part of Sarah Posner’s gloss on the poll at Religion Dispatches:

As Republican presidential candidates and governors pronounce Muslims and Syrian refugees personae non grata after the horrific massacres in Paris on Friday, a major new poll about Americans’ religious and cultural attitudes provides an ominous look at Americans’ views on immigrants and Islam in particular.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 Religious Landscape Survey, released today in a new report, “Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust,” finds “Americans’ perceptions of Islam have turned more negative over the past few years.” A majority of Americans—56 percent—in PRRI’s 2015 survey agreed with the statement that the values of Islam are “at odds with American values and way of life,” while 41 percent disagreed with that statement. That represents an increase over 2013, when 47 percent agreed with the statement and 48 percent disagreed.

“One of the things the survey is showing is an increased xenophobic streak in the American public,” Robert Jones, PRRI’s CEO, told me in an interview. In addition to the increased hostility to Islam, Jones said, the survey found increased negativity toward the contributions of immigrants to society, and increased intolerance for encountering immigrants who do not speak English. “The attitudes are moving in the same direction,” Jones said.

Jones emphasized that the survey was conducted before the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, but suggested the uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment was probably attributable to January’s terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in Paris, as well as to the increased visibility of ISIS atrocities.

“ISIS is a household word now,” he said, and “I think some of that is playing into these numbers.” Numerous Muslim groups and leaders have consistently condemned ISIS as contrary to Islam.

You can perhaps understand the rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, ignorant as it is. But what alarmed me more is the evidence of declining intolerance for people who don’t speak English:

Compared to a few years earlier, Americans report less tolerance when encountering immigrants who do not speak English. Nearly half (48%) of Americans agree that they are bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English, compared to 40% in 2012. More than six in ten (63%) white working-class Americans say they feel bothered when they come into contact with immigrants who do not speak English, compared to 43% of white college-educated Americans.

You’d normally think this would bother people less once they got used to the presence of people from different cultures–or that it might even push them towards supporting immigration reform measures that make learning English a condition for access to the “path to citizenship.” But no: this seems to show a real cultural backlash gaining steam. And it helps shows why Republican presidential candidates have been stampeding away from anything like comprehensive immigration reform.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.