Collective action is widely recognized as one of the most effective mechanisms for social change and equalizing reforms (VanZomer & Iyer, 2009). Collective action movements—like the immigrant rights movement—are often formed and led by oppressed groups. However, historical examples demonstrate that cross-group accomplices with privileged identities who act in solidarity for social change are important.
While much is known about the prejudice-reducing effects of intergroup contact, scholars have increasingly questioned whether the effects of intergroup contact extend beyond social harmony to social justice (Dixon et al., 2012). Merging the intergroup contact theory and collective action model of social change, this study assesses whether whites are more likely to support the aims of the immigrant rights movement and engage in political activism in response to opportunities to interact across ethnic-racial groups. We hypothesized intergroup contact—both casual, everyday and more intimate contact—would be related to more support for policies expanding immigrants’ rights and greater political activism. We expected these relationships to be facilitated by greater social empathy—which necessitates insights into the social, economic, and historical contexts influencing social groups (Segal, 2011).
A convenience sample of students from a large public university were recruited in Spring 2018 for this cross-sectional survey-based study. Participants (N=329) self-identified as white. The majority were female (77.20%); the average age was 23.06 (SD=18.08). Roughly half were online students; 46.20% leaned liberal. The survey battery included demographics, everyday intergroup contact in a variety of settings, close intergroup friendships, socio-political conversation salience, interpersonal and social empathy, immigrant rights policy attitudes, and political activist behaviors.
Main study analyses were conducted using path analysis in Mplus v.7.4. A sequence of direct effect models was estimated to test study hypotheses and build the full conceptual model. Indirect effects of intergroup contact on policy attitudes and political activism via social empathy were assessed using bias-corrected bootstrapping, maximum likelihood estimation, and full information maximum likelihood to handle missing data. Controls included gender and political ideology.
The bootstrap indirect effects model had good fit to the data: χ2=9.22(9), p=.42; CFI=1.00; RMSEA=.009 [.000,.063]; SRMR=.031. Everyday intergroup contact was indirectly associated with more support for immigrant rights policies (bootstrapped CI95%=[.031,.130], =.076) and greater political activism (bootstrapped CI95%=[.002,.052], =.022) by way of higher social empathy. Having close intergroup friends was indirectly related to more support for immigrant rights policies (bootstrapped CI95%=[.000,.030], =.011) and greater political activism (bootstrapped CI95%=[.000,.011], =.003) via the sequential pathway of more socio-political conversation salience and social empathy.
Study findings are discussed in terms of theoretical and practical importance for the immigrant rights and other movements. The accomplice-building conceptual model tested suggests the intergroup contact theory and collective action model may be more compatible than some scholars contend. Findings suggest that, through increased social empathy, even spontaneous, unstructured intergroup contact may be a powerful way to sensitize whites to the need for social change and spur action. Efficacious intergroup contact interventions, policy efforts to reduce ethnic-racial segregation, and additional opportunities to increase social empathy are discussed.