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Partisans Agree Muslims Face Lots of Discrimination

Graph shows partisan differences in perceptions of discrimination

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow. 

IFYC’s Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) found that inter-worldview friendships enhanced students’ orientations towards pluralism and increased their levels of respect for the faith traditions of their peers.

An ambitious new project, the American National Social Network Survey, finds that similar patterns hold for inter-partisan friendships. They moderate one’s own political convictions, increase openness to alternative political candidates and views, and reduce hostility towards members of the other party. Interracial relationships seem to have a similar effect on perceptions of race-related issues.

Regrettably, in terms of both race and political leanings, Americans’ social networks are incredibly homogeneous. People overwhelmingly associate with others who share their demographic characteristics and identity commitments. The report, unfortunately, did not discuss how common interfaith relationships were – but based on the homogeneity along other dimensions, one may expect they are also relatively rare.

There were a number of eye-popping data in the report. One image really jumped out to me, charting partisan differences in Americans’ perceptions of discrimination against different groups:

Now, there is a lazy and partisan way to read this chart – and I think it’s the path most in the media would be inclined to adopt – and it would run something like this: Democrats are really concerned about historically-marginalized and disadvantaged groups, while Republicans are concerned about reverse-discrimination against high-status groups (Christians, whites) instead. Entire academic literatures are premised upon reading these kind of data in this kind of way – including, perhaps especially, research on Trump and his supporters.


However, the chart does not show this at all.

Instead, what we see is that Republican views about the prevalence of discrimination are fairly consistent across the board, with roughly the same share of Republicans (35- 45%) saying of any group that they face ‘a lot’ of discrimination.

Irrespective of reference group, most Republicans do not believe discrimination is highly prevalent in the United States. Indeed, literally the only group a majority of Republicans believe faces ‘a lot’ of discrimination is… wait for it… Muslims.

In fact, there is actually significant overlap between Democrats and Republicans as to who they perceive as the most persecuted groups.

In fact, there is actually significant overlap between Democrats and Republicans as to who they perceive as the most persecuted groups. Republicans are most likely to say that Muslims and transgender people fact ‘a lot’ of discrimination, while Democrats are most likely to say black people face ‘a lot’ of discrimination, followed by transgender people and Muslims.

Indeed, the primary difference between Democrats and Republicans in this chart is that Republican perceptions of discrimination are fairly stable across reference groups. As a matter of fact, they do not tend to believe Christians and whites are heavily persecuted. With the exception of Muslims, most Republicans reject that any group in America faces ‘a lot’ of discrimination (although they seem to think of Asians, Mormons and atheists as especially immune).  

Meanwhile, Democrat perceptions fluctuate dramatically depending on reference group – essentially breaking down into three clusters. They overwhelmingly (85% or more) believe blacks, Hispanic, Muslim and LGBTQ Americans face high levels of discrimination. Asians and Jewish people fall into a lower tier, with most (but far fewer) Democrats saying they face ‘a lot’ of discrimination. Yet Democrats overwhelmingly reject that the remaining groups face significant discrimination, by a ratio of more than 2:1.

This pattern, that Republican attitudes and behaviors tend to be relatively stable irrespective of reference group, while Democrats’ attitudes and behaviors vary dramatically depending on who is being referred to, is a persistent finding in social research (e.g. here, here, here, here, here).

A more accurate top-line quote for the chart might therefore be: conservatives believe America is generally fair, and don’t believe any group other than Muslims are particularly persecuted. Most Democrats, meanwhile, think many groups face a lot of discrimination and other groups don’t. Muslims are the only group that most Democrats and most Republicans agree face a lot of discrimination in America today (although the challenges faced by transgender Americans approaches bipartisan consensus as well).

Unfortunately, underlying this partisan consensus lies a stark reality: Muslims do face significant discrimination within the United States.

Unfortunately, underlying this partisan consensus lies a stark reality: Muslims do face significant discrimination within the United StatesMuslims are viewed less positively than any other religious group, including non-religious people. They are depicted in overwhelmingly negative ways in the media -- more than virtually any other minority group.  Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Muslims, or even people just perceived to be Muslims, are subject to hate crimes, employment discrimination, government violations of civil rights and civil liberties.

These outcomes are often described as unfortunate spillover from the September 11th attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror.’ And to be sure, 9/11, subsequent rise of ISIS, caused a deterioration in public views about Muslims and Islam. However, the situation was not particularly great before 9/11. As a matter of fact, the ability to ‘put up’ with Muslims and the practice of Islam has been held up as an extreme test of religious tolerance since, literally, the founding of this nation (despite the fact that Muslims have a longer history with America longer than Protestants do).  

Yet, in spite of all this, American Muslims remain optimistic, patriotic, and well-integrated into American society – with Muslim immigrants expressing an even more positive view of the United States than those who were born and raised here.

U.S. Muslims face many challenges – Americans across the political spectrum rightly perceive this to be the case – yet we refuse to allow ourselves to be defined or discouraged by these challenges.

Sponsored by AEI and the Knight Foundation, the American National Social Network Survey is carried out in partnership with NORC (who administer the General Social Survey). The project looks at the social networks of thousands of Americans over time, exploring how who people associate with affects how they look at the world.

The full report, “Socially Distant: How Our Divided Social Networks Explain Our Politics,” contains much more information on Americans’ social networks – including their racial diversity, and how inter-party and inter-racial relationships affect perceptions on race, inequality and social justice. It also includes a battery of questions about the state of the contemporary U.S. and the upcoming elections.

For those interested in a deeper dive into the survey and its results, I will be giving some remarks, and participating on a panel, for an event introducing the project on Tuesday, October 13th, from 10:30 am – noon EST. I’ll be joined by political scientist Sam Abrams, Camille Busette of the Brookings Institution, plus Daniel Cox and Ryan Streeter from AEI. The event is free and open to the public. Interested parties can sign up here to attend.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.