Quelling Racial Tensions

To begin to deal with racial tensions, colleges and universities should recognize and respect people's humanity and apply other conflict-resolution principles, says Michael F. Mascolo.

April 14, 2016

Racial tensions, which erupted last fall in the form of numerous student protests, continue to fester on college campuses. Within the last several weeks and months, for example, students at both Harvard Law School and the University of Washington have engaged in a series of sit-ins and protests at which they made demands intended to bring about changes in the racial climate on campus.

In fact, over the past seven years, more than one thousand complaints of racial harassment on college campuses have been reported to the U.S. Department of Education. Such events include racially motivated violence, slurs, acts of hate, social exclusions, hate speech, remarks viewed as insensitive by college personnel, and more. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education documents the growing list of racial infractions.

In November, the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri appropriately resigned after students, administrators and faculty members protested their tepid reactions to racial incidents on campus. In a transcript posted in The Columbia Missourian, now former President Timothy Wolf stated, “It is my belief we stopped listening to each other … this is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about.”

While it may have come too late, Wolf has effectively diagnosed the problem: we do not listen well to each other on matters of race. Discussions about race typically take the form of confrontations and polarizing debates. If we listen to each other at all, we do so not to seek understanding but instead to advance and defend our own positions. That is not an effective way to resolve social conflict.

Seeking to promote racial justice, colleges promulgate formalistic policies and procedures prohibiting harassment and acts of discrimination. Clear acts of racial discrimination are appropriately handled with such policies. There is no place on campus for racially motivated violence, slurs or harassment -- just as there is no place for administrators who are not fully committed to responding to ongoing racial tension.

But the full range of racial tension cannot and will not be solved through policy and enforcement alone. That is because racial tension is a human problem and not simply a legislative one. At base, dealing with racial conflict is a problem of affirming the dignity of the other, something that can’t simply be mandated. Instead, it must be cultivated over time by establishing an ethos of mutual understanding, empathy and respect for other people’s humanity. This is a collaborative process that requires engaging the emotions as well as the intellect. And it is no small task.

Steps to the Collaborative Resolution of Racial Conflict

Fortunately, however, a vast literature shows how principles of conflict management can bring about meaningful changes in the attitudes of people involved in social conflict. Those principles, as expressed, for example, in Fisher, Ury and Patton’s classic Getting to Yes, are founded upon the importance of seeking to resolve conflict while preserving and enhancing the dignity of all participants -- regardless of the positions and attitudes they may espouse. They are directly applicable to addressing issues of racial tension in the academy.

By following such principles, campuses can model ways to have difficult conversations about the unspoken issues that underlie racial strife. Conflict management principles help people to (a) articulate their genuine concerns about race in ways that (b) preserve the dignity of those involved in the conflict. They also help them (c) seek resolutions to resolve the unmet needs of each party (d) without giving in.

Colleges should consider four basic steps when confronting racial tension on their campuses. To illustrate, I will draw on the case of Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, who resigned her post after protests spurred by an email. In that email, she communicated her commitment to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold” -- a phrase that many people regarded as racially insensitive.

Step 1: Acknowledge the humanity of the other person. We live in an increasingly polarized society. We tend to think of people with whom we disagree in extreme terms: they are out of touch, crazy, stupid or evil. We forget that the people with whom we disagree are human beings. And so, the first step to resolving a social problem is to try to understand the interests, beliefs, fears and failings that motivate the other person’s actions -- and especially those actions with which we disagree. That is necessary in order to open up dialogue and pave the way to genuine problem solving.

In the Spellman case, seeing the humanity in the other would simply take the form of seeking to understand and have compassion for the plights of both the students and the dean -- regardless of whether one agrees with their actions. It would involve acknowledging the deep hurt experienced over time by minority students and how the dean’s email was experienced as yet another recapitulation of those hurts. It would also involve extending the benefit of the doubt to a dean, whose clumsy words would seem to be motivated by noble intent.

Step 2: Identify unmet interests. Racial conflict on campus often involves contests over demands. A demand, especially when made in the throes of a heated protest, is a kind of pre-emptive solution. But arguing over demands tends to make it more difficult to solve the genuine problem at hand because it is never identified -- and thus cannot be addressed.

In conflict management, a distinction is made between the positions or demands made by people involved in a conflict and the underlying interests that motivate those demands. Positions are the initial stances taken by opposing sides in a conflict; interests are the unmet needs of participants that give rise to initial positions and demands. In conflict resolution, the problem to be solved is how to meet the unmet needs and interests of each party involved in a conflict.

In the Spellman case, students demanded the resignation of the dean, and the situation then became a contest over whether or not she would keep her post. But the students’ interests likely included: being recognized as full members of the college community, having their history of indignities acknowledged, changing the perception of minorities as second-class citizens and so forth. From the available evidence, the dean’s interests involved supporting students of color and seeking understanding and forgiveness for her clumsy use of words. The administration’s interests were likely to avoid the embarrassment of exposed tensions.

Step 3: Negotiate from interests, not demands. To resolve racial tensions, it is helpful to create forums in which parties can express their genuine interests, anxieties and concerns without fear and without impugning the humanity of others involved in a conflict. The simple fact, however, is that this does not come naturally. We simply do not know how to talk effectively about issues like race. A skilled mediator can help parties learn to identify their genuine interests -- public and private -- in ways that minimize blame and preserve the dignity of others involved in a conflict.

Take the Spellman case again. Imagine a series of public and private forums, organized over long periods of time, run by a series of trained mediators. Imagine that the mediators were to teach and enforce a series of strategies and ground rules for expressing interests and needs. Imagine that students had the opportunity to express, without interruption, the full range of their experiences of indignity and marginalization -- but with a minimum of blame or hostility. Imagine that administrators, faculty members and others agreed to continue to listen until they could demonstrate to the students’ satisfaction an adequate understanding of students’ experiences (even if they were to disagree). Imagine that the students felt heard and perhaps even empathized with.

Now imagine that the roles are reversed, and students are asked to listen and demonstrate their understanding of the interests, needs and fears of their opponents. Imagine that the goodwill that could be accrued by being understood carried forward into the task of seeking to understand the other.

Step 4: Seek solutions for mutual gain without giving in. Once people have their genuine interests heard and acknowledged, they often, although not always, find that their core interests do not conflict. At this point, genuine problem solving can begin. The task becomes one of seeking novel solutions for mutual gain -- that is, solutions that can meet the interests and needs of all parties to the conflict.

When that happens, the problem becomes: Is it possible to develop solutions that meet the core interests and needs of each party, without any party giving in? In the Spellman case, that might translate into: Is it possible to address the marginalization that students experienced by the dean’s choice of words while simultaneously entertaining multiple interpretations of those words? Or more broadly: Can we change our institutional culture in ways that respect minorities as full members of the college community while also promoting honest and sensitive racial communication?

Moving Past Fear

Although we know a great deal about managing conflict and reducing prejudice, we fail to act upon this knowledge. Our failure is born mainly of fear. We fear that our efforts will be difficult and take time. That is true. We fear that if we lead with compassion we will appear weak. That is untrue. Seeking understanding does not imply giving in to the other.

It is possible to understand -- even empathize -- without agreeing. When we learn that the other person does not have to lose in order for us to gain, listening becomes easier on both sides, and collaboration for mutual gain becomes possible.

Could such an approach fail? Of course. But without significant change in the communicative culture of the academy, racial tensions are more likely to continue to fester than to heal. And we haven’t even begun to try.


Michael F. Mascolo is a professor in the department of psychology at Merrimack College.


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