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The Political Payoff of Making Whites Feel Like a Minority

Two examples of the president’s efforts and the underlying support for his positions illustrate these trends.

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A senior White House adviser, Stephen Miller, said that the Statue of Liberty is a “symbol of American liberty lighting the world” but that it had little to do with immigrants.

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Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

On Wednesday, he offered his support for a bill that would cut legal immigration to the United States in half, saying “this legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.” To achieve its goal, the plan would limit entry for some family members of American citizens and permanent residents.

In explaining how limiting the entry of relatives would put the needs of American families first, a White House policy adviser, Stephen Miller, said it was “common sense” that immigration was costing Americans jobs. He then suggested that the family members who would be denied entry under the proposal were largely low-skill workers who were taking jobs away from struggling Americans.

The claim about who, if anyone, suffers from the immigration of low-skilled workers is nuanced. Debate on the question is active. If people come to America because they have a relative living here, it does not mean by definition that they are low-skilled workers. Despite the difficulty of nailing down the effects of low-skilled immigration on American families, public opinion on the topic — at least for a particular set of Americans — may reflect the “common sense” Mr. Miller described.

In January 2016, the American National Election Study asked 875 white Americans this question: How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead? On average, 28 percent of the white population thought it was extremely or very likely that white people could not find work because of minorities seeking those same jobs. Roughly half the white population thought it was at least moderately or slightly likely. Only 21 percent thought this was not at all likely.

Differences emerge across party lines, even among whites. Close to 20 percent of Democrats thought it was extremely likely that the prospects for white job-seekers would be threatened by the presence of minority workers, while 34 percent of Republicans (and 30 percent of independents) felt this way.

Among white Republicans and independents, an even greater divide becomes clear: White voters who preferred Mr. Trump to one of the other candidates in the Republican field were nearly twice as likely to anticipate white job loss to nonwhite workers (48 percent compared with 24 percent).

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At a Trump campaign rally on Long Island last year.

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Damon Winter/The New York Times

The survey also asked white people how important it was for whites to work together to change laws that are unfair to whites. On average, 38 percent said it was extremely or very important. Only a quarter thought it was not important at all — a category that presumably also encompasses people who thought no such laws existed.

These trends also help to frame President Trump’s other recent announcement that the Justice Department would be investigating college admissions procedures that might discriminate against white applicants.

The difference between white Democrats and Republicans on the importance of uniting as a group against discriminatory laws is only five percentage points, with Republicans believing it was more important than Democrats and independents.

The divide, however, among Republicans who preferred Mr. Trump in the primaries and those who chose someone else is overwhelming. Nearly 60 percent of Mr. Trump’s primary supporters thought organizing to change laws that are unfair to white people was extremely or very important. Only 15 percent thought it was not important at all to do so. Supporters of other G.O.P. candidates, on average, were about half as concerned.

The data show that race is less important to white Americans’ sense of self than to nonwhites — more white people say being white is not at all important to their identity relative to the numbers who say so in other groups. But Mr. Trump’s continued efforts to remind white Americans of their group status may increase the number of white people who think of themselves through a racial lens. It is one of the ways that his campaign and presidency may reshape public opinion and politics.

He is capitalizing both on an existing sense of threat among white voters and the opportunity to shape the way whites — because of their group membership — think of themselves.

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