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From "Different" to "Similar": An Experimental Approach to Understanding Assimilation

American Sociological Review

Published online on


Assimilation is theorized as a multi-stage process where the structural mobility of immigrants and their descendants ultimately leads to established and immigrant-origin populations developing a subjective sense of social similarity with one another, an outcome I term symbolic belonging. Yet existing work offers little systematic evidence as to whether and how immigrants’ gains—in terms of language ability, socioeconomic status, neighborhood integration, or intermarriage—cause changes in the perceptions of the native-born U.S. population. I use a nationally representative conjoint survey experiment to explore whether and how immigrants’ mobility gains shape native-born white citizens’ perceptions of symbolic belonging. I find that white natives are generally open to structural relationships with immigrant-origin individuals (e.g., friends and neighbors), with the exception of black immigrants and natives, and undocumented immigrants. Yet, white Americans simultaneously view all non-white people, regardless of legal status, as dissimilar and far from achieving symbolic belonging in U.S. society. The results offer optimism about the potential structural mobility of legal immigrants and their descendants, yet simultaneously suggest that explicitly racialized lines of division remain just below the surface.