Hard Truths About Race on Campus

Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim, Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2016

Imagine that you were the president of an American university at the end of 2015, as student protests over racial concerns swept the country, energized by the Black Lives Matter movement. The president of the University of Missouri resigned over controversies there, and other college leaders were confronted on their campuses. Now it’s your turn. A hundred students march to your office and present their demands. They give you one week to respond. What should you do?

If you had looked to your counterparts at other institutions for guidance, the message was clear. The president of Yale pledged to spend $50 million to increase faculty diversity and to satisfy other demands. The president of Brown pledged $100 million for diversity training and other steps to create a more “just and inclusive campus.”

With such big moves by Yale and Brown, who could blame you for following their lead? After all, much of the students’ agenda was simply an amplification of what American colleges have been doing for decades: They demanded increased affirmative action, more diversity training, more funds to support scholarship and teaching about race and social justice. What harm could it do?

We are social psychologists who study the psychology of morality (Haidt) and the causes and consequences of prejudice and stereotypes (Jussim). As far as we can tell, the existing research literature suggests that such reforms will fail to achieve their stated aims of reducing discrimination and inequality. In fact, we think that they are likely to damage race relations and to make campus life more uncomfortable for everyone, particularly black students.

A basic principle of psychology is that people pay more attention to information that predicts important outcomes in their lives. A key social factor that we human beings track is who is “us” and who is “them.” {snip}

None of this means that we are doomed to discriminate by race. A 2001 study by Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that race was much less prominent in how people categorized each other when individuals also shared some other prominent social characteristic, like membership on a team. If you set things up so that race conveys less important information than some other salient factor, then people pay less attention to race.

A second principle of psychology is the power of cooperation. When groups face a common threat or challenge, it tends to dissolve enmity and create a mind-set of “one for all, all for one.” Conversely, when groups are put into competition with each other, people readily shift into zero-sum thinking and hostility.

With these principles in mind, it is hard to see how the programs now being adopted by many universities will serve to create campuses where students of color feel more welcome and less marginalized.

Of all the demands made to university presidents–for a comprehensive list, from some 80 schools, see TheDemands.org–the most common is that universities admit more black students and hire more black faculty. Sometimes a specific target, like 15%, is mentioned, to mirror the proportion of blacks in the U.S. population. But what will happen if these targets are met using methods that increase the importance or value of individuals’ tracking each other by race?

Since its introduction during the Kennedy administration, affirmative action has referred to a variety of initiatives to improve the recruitment, training and retention of talented minority candidates. Such programs are not colorblind, and we strongly support taking such deliberate steps to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups.

But as practiced in most of the top American universities, affirmative action also involves using different admissions standards for applicants of different races, which automatically creates differences in academic readiness and achievement. Although these gaps vary from college to college, studies have found that Asian students enter with combined math/verbal SAT scores on the order of 80 points higher than white students and 200 points higher than black students. A similar pattern occurs for high-school grades. These differences are large, and they matter: High-school grades and SAT scores predict later success as measured by college grades and graduation rates.

As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers. People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.

And racial gaps in classroom performance create other problems. A 2013 study by the economist Peter Arcidiacono of Duke University found that students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic achievement. This is a big contributor to the patterns of racial and ethnic self-segregation visible on many campuses. If a school increases its affirmative-action efforts in ways that expand these gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students.

Another common student demand is to commit money to programs and departments devoted to specific ethnic or identity groups. Such centers may provide many benefits, but will expanding them advance the protesters’ stated goal of reducing feelings of marginalization?

In a 2004 study designed to examine the effects of “ethnic enclaves,” a team of social psychologists led by Jim Sidanius (now at Harvard) tracked most of the incoming freshmen at the University of California, Los Angeles. They measured attitudes in the week before classes started and surveyed the same students each spring for the next four years. The study allowed the researchers to see how joining an organization based on ethnic identity changed students’ attitudes.

The results were mostly grim. For black, Asian and Latino students, “membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.” The authors also examined the effect on white students of joining fraternities and sororities and found similar effects, including an increased sense of ethnic victimization and opposition to intergroup dating.

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