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Immigration, Discrimination, and Trust: A Simply Complex Relationship

Posted on:
May 17, 2019

Frontiers in Sociology
Open access journal | Revue en libre accès
May 17, 2019 | Le 17 mai 2019

Abstract | Résumé

“Many immigrants experience discrimination. In this paper we consider how discrimination affects their trust. We make a theoretical case for a formal mediation approach to studying the immigration, discrimination, and trust relationship. This approach shifts attention to the basic fact that the overall levels of discrimination experienced by different immigrant and native-born groups are not the same. We also build on previous empirical research by considering multiple forms of discrimination, multiple types of trust and multiple immigrant/native-born groups. Drawing on the 2013 Canadian General Social Survey data (N = 27,695) we analyze differences in three kinds of trust (generalized trust, trust in specific others, and political trust), and the role of perceived discrimination (ethnic, racial, any), between five immigrant-native groups (Canadian-born whites, Canadian-born people of color, foreign-born whites, foreign-born people of color, and Indigenous people). We find that perceived discrimination is more relevant to general trust and trust in specific others than to political trust. We also find that perceived discrimination explains more of the trust gap between racialized immigrants and the native-born than the gap between non-racialized immigrants and the native-born. The results illustrate that what appears to be a simple relationship is far more complex when attempting to explain group differences.”


“Tensions with Muslims over the Burkini in France, support for the exit of the U.K. from the European Union, and even the recent debates about foreign home ownership in Canada clearly illustrate the challenges facing immigrant minorities in many countries. Underlying these challenges is a crisis of trust—a widening trust gap between immigrant and racialized minorities and majority populations in institutions and authorities.

But noting that there is a crisis of trust related to minority groups does not explain why it occurs. Minority group status is merely a container or “black box” for other experiences and characteristics (Tilly, 2001; Reskin, 2003). There is a need to identify the mechanism, that is, the process or set of experiences, through which these status group markers connect to trust. This paper contributes to this endeavor by considering the extent to which discrimination is the mechanism that might account for group differences in trust. Although it is widely believed that ethnic and racial gaps in trust stems from discrimination this argument has yet to be directly tested.

The reason for this gap is that, in the case of immigration, trust, and discrimination the focus has been on the universal effect of discrimination across immigrant groups, or for a smaller number of studies, on whether the effect of discrimination might matter more for some groups than for others. The fact that some groups—including immigrants—experience a lot more discrimination than others is left implicit. In order to take into account differential rates of discrimination, that is that some groups experience more discrimination than others, there needs to be a shift from a moderating approach to a mediating approach. This entails a shift from explaining overall aggregate levels of trust to explaining group-based gaps in trust. The limited number of studies in the trust literature that have attempted to explain group-based gaps in trust across ethnic and immigrant groups (e.g., see De Vroome et al., 2013; Hwang, 2017) have yet to consider the direct experience of discrimination or to use any kind of formal test of mediation.

The results clearly show that race needs to be disentangled from nativity status. This finding is important, especially in a context of huge changes in global migration patterns and increased migration of non-whites in both the European and North American contexts. In the case of generalized trust and trust in specific others the analysis of the 2013 Canadian General Social Survey shows that there is a mediating effect of discrimination on trust based on race and Indigeneity but not immigrant status. The results clearly show that both race and Indigeneity are important and that these need to be disentangled from nativity status. This finding is important, especially in a context of huge changes in global migration patterns and increased migration of non-whites in both the European and North American contexts.

If discrimination matters for the native-born this means that, irrespective of whether immigrant minority groups “catch up” in terms of other factors that affect trust, there is unlikely to be a catching up effect in terms of the trust of the second generation. This may in part explain why, even though Canada is generally a high trust country, it has not been immune to trust challenges: Black Lives Matter has resonated with the experiences of many in Canadian cities, Francophones consistently trust less, and there is an Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous women. None of the first two are recent immigrant groups and the third is Indigenous.

These results do, however, depend on the type of trust. In the case of political trust, the results help to explain previous work showing that members of some minority groups have higher political trust than majority group members. We find that individuals who are foreign-born show no difference in political trust or actually trust more than Canadian-born whites. This occurs because of competitive mediation, that is, a pattern where the mediated and direct effect are approximately the same size but operate in different directions (see Zhao et al., 2010). That the direct effect of being foreign-born is positive is likely because institutions in Canada are generally trustworthy—at least on a global scale and hence minority groups often look to the state for protection (Maxwell, 2010). However, this relationship does not appear to exist for those who have directly experienced discrimination. A further issue is that, in the case of political trust, for Indigenous peoples political it is lower and this is exacerbated by the direct experience of discrimination. All too often this group is omitted from the nativity-immigrant comparison, and it must be acknowledged that the distinction of place of birth may be irrelevant to many Indigenous peoples (e.g., see Deer, 2011; Fenelon, 2016).

Finally, there are a number of avenues for further research that emerge from the work presented here. First, the mediation approach used in this paper could be use either to explain gaps in other outcomes that vary between immigrants and the native-born. This might include economic outcomes such as income, political outcomes such as voting and social outcomes such as well-being and happiness. Second, the mediation approach could be extended to considering the role of other types of mediators including, demographics, socio-economic resources, and social capital. Although discrimination was often the most important factor this was not across the board and, in most instances it is partial mediation ranging from about 20–50%. Thus, about 50% in the gap in trust still requires explanation. Third, is that although we have focused on the direct experience of discrimination we do not wish to suggest that discrimination does not also matter because of its relationship to other trust correlates. Take, for example, education which is a form of human capital that leads to higher trust10. In the case of immigrants and racialized minority groups, in addition to overt discrimination, there are also specific discriminatory and colonial institutional histories that lead to lower general levels of the very factors such as education that in turn predict overall levels of integration and well-being.”

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Research at a Glance is designed to inform the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) community and other interested parties about recently published, policy-relevant research from government, academic and NGO sources. The views expressed in the documents described do not necessarily reflect those of IRCC.


Immigration, Discrimination, and Trust: A Simply Complex Relationship