Hard Truths About Race on Campus

May 11, 2016

By Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim

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.” In classic studies, researchers divided people into groups based on arbitrary factors such as a coin toss. They found that, even with such trivial distinctions, people discriminated in favor of their in-group members.

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.

There may be academic reasons for creating these ethnic centers, but if the goal of expanding such programs is to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture on campus, the best current research suggests that the effort will backfire.

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10 comments on “Hard Truths About Race on Campus

  • An interesting and new approach.

    So it will be totally ignored by the majority of K-12 educational areas and many universities will continue to cave totally to the demands of students that do not have much of an idea about what they are talking about.

    High-school grades and SAT scores predict later success as measured by college grades and graduation rates.

    Usually, not always. I graduated HS in three years and had a 3.8 GPA for my BA, but you could not meet a bigger fuck up than I became!

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  • The USA due to its high societal inequality and the poverty of its welfare provisions is the only OECD country where IQ is actively depressed by poverty, i.e. does not have just the usual correlation of IQ and income earning potential.

    Before any of this social engineering, fix inequality at source. “Christian Nation” my arse.

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  • While I am totally on board with sweeping change and welcome diversity on campus, I’d like to see the same yearning extend chronologically back down into the younger kids, especially kids of lower socioeconomic means.

    See, as a high school teacher, I get the “general masses” BEFORE the filter of acceptance into college comes into play.

    I am pleased as hell that folks of color are standing up and demanding representation and equality in the college ranks. I’d like to see their passion and sense of fairness aimed at the younger kids of all races (but the same socioeconomic class) who are faced with a truly troubling situation….

    You see, there is a cultural undercurrent that systematically discourages the poor from striving towards achievement. Much of this discouragement is from within their own families, streets, and neighborhoods.

    I have spent the past five summers teaching a special camp for kids from the inner city (kids of all races). They stay at a college for four weeks, all expenses paid. These are kids that are “rising” 6th and 7th graders. They live in a dorm, experience college labs and classrooms (the curriculum is specially geared toward STEM lessons that are age appropriate). They are picked by their teachers and all the kids in the school are considered. They go on field trips (last year a hydroelectric dam), they get 3 meals a day, movies, they go to Hershey park…. One year, we went to the Philadelphia Eagles stadium, met players, and hung out on the locker rooms.

    We’ve built rube-goldberg machines, studied conservation laws, sustainability, dissected owl pellets, built solar powered model cars, extracted DNA, made slime, …. One year I did the entire camp through the science of cooking…. we even ended that year with molecular gastronomy. I showed the kids how to make peanut butter foam and jelly microspheres….

    If they graduate their elementary school with a B or better average, they are automatically able to attend a private catholic school for free (a $9,000 a year scholarship). If they graduate that high school with a B or better average, they are automatically able to attend Widener University (who partially funds the program) free of charge (a $55,000 a year scholarship)… So earning good grades earns you 2 hundred and 56 thousand dollars in free education. A QUARTER MILLION dollars!!!!!

    We have had 200 kids go though the program (again, of all races). 20 have gone on to the high school.
    None have gone to the college.

    I am flabbergasted. So, the fight on campus is a noble and necessary fight and I stand with the people looking for equality and change. I think there is another fight and until that second fight is clearly identified and addressed, there will always be fundamental inequality in the classes. The rich will continue to get richer and unfortunately, the poor will continue to get poorer.

    One more thing, the US gov’t is complicit in this and guilty up to their fucking elbows in it. Think this over, school districts qualify for state funds by earning higher scores on standardized tests. The school districts that are affluent, where students have BOTH parents working as doctors, lawyers, investment bankers… do best on the tests…. hen, they get the funding. IF YOU ARE A FAILING SCHOOL THEY CUT YOUR FUNDS ( yes I am yelling)…. What planet does that make sense on?

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  • Crooked Shoes,
    I would think the purpose of public education is to educate ALL the children. In the USA the education system tends to pick the winners and discard the rest.
    The funding for schools is left to the local level, rich areas get excellent education, poor areas get poor education.
    This policy wastes talent and keeps poor and uneducated areas economically depressed.

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  • I have mixed feelings about this subject.
    On one hand, I’m all for equality, and I feel everyone is entitled to a good education.
    On the other hand, higher education facilities like colleges and universities are just that: “higher education”; and they have entry requirements to reflect that (no point trying to teach some-one that will never wrap their head around a subject). In that case, the ONLY “equal” system is to ignore all else but the entry requirements.

    (Minor rant…) A while back, having a university degree MEANT something; a sign of achievement that garnered respect. Now, with the “everyone deserves a degree” mentality, universities have “dumbed down” their courses so that more can pass, and having a degree has lost its status somewhat. My view is that a university education should be a privilege, not a right. (It should be funded somewhat differently than it is here, but that’s a different rant…)(Rant over)

    I guess it boils down to the old “nature vs. nurture” argument: do the kids of “doctors and lawyers” do better because of their more expensive education, or because smarter parents (on average) produce smarter kids?
    It’s when the anomaly of a bright kid from “lower” parents arises, that you have to be careful to catch it…

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  • 7
    Pinball1970 says:

    @shadowmind A while back, having a university degree MEANT something;
    I totally agree (and a small digression)
    In the UK approx 6% of kids went to university in the 1960’s that increased to 14% in the 1970s under Blair it went to over 40%. A government minister in 2003 said he wanted that figure to hit 70%.
    I think the balance was right towards the end of the 1980s, less manufacturing therefore more technology orientated degrees required. Courses that simply were not around in the 60s and 70s
    Poorer kids in the 80s could get into university with decent A levels and grants and loans from the bank and LEA.
    Now we have a plethora of completely useless degrees held by young people with very poor numeracy and literacy skills, the reason being that those kids should not have gone on to higher education in the first place.
    Those same kids also have hefty debts from loans obtained just to pay for tuition fees, Tutors in David Beckham studies don’t come cheap.
    Employers largely disregard degrees unless they are in something useful, academic.
    Regarding the OP whites kids are now LESS likely to go to university in the UK and white boys are the lowest performing group for obtaining exam passes for 5 GSCEs or more (for 16 year olds)

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  • @Alf1200
    The system is broken. The system is broken…. ad infinitum…

    But, the system being broken (the disease) has symptoms…. Symptoms like the bullshit way it is funded, the bullshit rewards system, the bullshit degrees being awarded, the bullshit “requirements” to get into college, the bullshit standardized tests, the bullshit politicians rendering their bullshit proclamations, and ….yes, the bullshit attitudes that are fostered in peoples houses regarding doing well in school and achieving. It is bullshit all the way down.

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  • crookedshoes #8
    May 14, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    the bullshit degrees being awarded, the bullshit “requirements” to get into college, the bullshit standardized tests,

    They may well try to fix the problems by throwing dollars at it in selected areas!

    It may interest you to know, that one of my sons is providing IT support and business tracking of $multibillion business transactions for US multinational corporations, from his office in England, where he is technical director of an IT company specialising in high end business software and services.

    Many businesses are now literally “global”!

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