A New Look at the Impact of Diversity

Major scholarly study finds positive impacts from having roommates from different backgrounds -- and negative impacts from being members of groups largely of one race or ethnicity.
December 19, 2008

Much of the rhetoric about diversity is based on ideas about what happens when students are exposed (or are hardly ever exposed) to people who are from different backgrounds than they are. A new study that tracked 2,000 students at the University of California at Los Angeles attempts to move beyond the rhetoric by documenting exactly what does happen when students interact with different kinds of fellow students.

Some of the findings may cheer supporters of affirmative action. Notably, the research found a positive impact on racial attitudes from students who are exposed to those of other races and ethnicities. While many educators have long said that they believe in such an impact, the new study provides longitudinal research to back up what to many has been conventional wisdom more than scientific research. These findings may be crucial because court rulings upholding the legality of affirmative action have made the point that some broad societal gain is needed, not just the individual benefit that goes to an admitted minority students.

Other findings, however, may anger some diversity advocates (not to mention some fraternity and sorority leaders). The researchers examined the impact of membership in groups that are defined largely by race and ethnicity (such as black student unions) as well as membership in groups that do not have an explicit racial or ethnic mission, but have overwhelmingly white members (some fraternities and sororities). Generally, they found that a negative impact resulted from membership in these groups -- white or minority -- in which belonging to such a group led to an increase in feelings of victimization.

"The overall point of this study was to try to find out what effects the college experience has on intergroup attitudes of students," said Jim Sidanius, the lead author and a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The results are being released this month in The Diversity Challenge: Social Identity and Intergroup Relations on the College Campus, a book being published by the Russell Sage Foundation. (The other authors are Shana Levin of Claremont McKenna College, Colette Van Laar of Leiden University and David O. Sears of UCLA.)

Sidanius said that the research was conducted from the perspective of being "neutral" on affirmative action -- with the scholars not seeking evidence to either bolster or hinder the practice. UCLA was selected both because of its racial and ethnic diversity (no group on campus is a majority) and because some of its policies lend themselves to work of this kind. For example, first-year roommates are assigned randomly, resulting in pools of students who live with someone of the same race and ethnicity and others who do not.

One key finding was the generally positive impact on racial attitudes of living with someone of a different race. Students were surveyed on their attitudes before being assigned someone to live with, and after a year in which some lived with "outgroup roommates." Generally, and regardless of the attitudes with which students entered UCLA, those who lived with members of other ethnic groups showed statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one's own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups. The changes in attitudes were most striking for those living with either black or Latino roommates.

The one exception to this positive impact was with Asian students as roommates: White and black students who lived with Asians tended to show increased prejudice against Asians on some measures after living with them.

From the surveys, Sidanius said that it was clear that whatever positive impacts occurred by having people live with those from other groups were more as a result of informal interaction. It's not that minority students are explaining the history of racism; they are just interacting as roommates do. "It largely is about becoming friends, and developing emotional friendships, not just trading information," Sidanius said.

This finding has several implications, Sidanius said. First it suggests that colleges and society benefit when there are enough people from different backgrounds at a college that people can end up rooming with people from different groups. Second, it says that colleges should place a premium on mixing students up with room assignments. "The first thing colleges should do is to randomly assign students to roommates or deliberately mix race and ethnicity of roommates to make sure students don't end up rooming in ethnic enclaves," he said.

Impact of Students' Choices

Enclaves can of course exist in areas beyond housing. The research team for The Diversity Challenge also did extensive research on the impact of participation in student groups associated with racial or ethnic groups or that were predominantly populated by members of one group. The book notes that researchers using "a multicultural framework" have long argued that minority student organizations represent both a source of support for participants and "a bridge" to the rest of the campus.

That's only correct in part, the book concludes, based on surveys of students involved and not involved in such organizations. Many minority students in such groups report positive feelings of ethnic identity and political engagement, the book says. But involvement with such groups also -- in contrast to the more inclusive view of multiculturalism -- increased students' sense that they are victims and that all racial and ethnic groups are locked in "zero-sum competition."

These "conflict-inducing" impacts, the book stresses, are not unique to membership in minority student organizations. They are present in white students who are involved in predominantly white fraternities and sororities.

Sidanius said in an interview that he realizes that one conclusion of this part of the book might be that colleges should stop supporting Greek systems that are largely segregated, or minority student organizations. Such a move would probably be "too costly politically" for a college president today, Sidanius said. But at the same time, he added that college leaders should focus more attention than they have on the fact that many Greek systems are more segregated than much of the rest of the campus. As for minority student organizations, he said he would "stop encouraging" their growth. Colleges might not eliminate them, but might not shower them with support and funds, he said.

As a scholar, Sidanius practices what he preaches. An African American, he is a member of several scholarly societies that have black caucuses -- and while he participates in the societies, he doesn't join the caucuses.


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