Half Truths about Race on Campus

Evelyn Carter
May 12, 2016 · 7 min read

The Paths and Dead Ends to Racial Equality in Higher Education

Evelyn Carter (Purdue University) & Lisel Murdock-Perriera (Stanford University)

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal promised to offer “hard truths” about race on campus. Instead, authors Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim use slanted representations of broad psychological theory to draw conclusions. If anything, this slant caters to fears and anxieties of majority group members while ignoring research on how suggested reforms would affect students from underrepresented groups, whose voices are often silenced.

As social psychologists who research stereotyping, prejudice reduction, and education, we are well aware that opinions about how to address campus diversity can lead universities to create programs that are unsuccessful or are not critically evaluated (Paluck & Green, 2009). Nevertheless, the future for inclusion on college campuses is not as grim as Haidt and Jussim make it out to be. To prematurely conclude that renewed diversity efforts will “fail” or “make campus life more uncomfortable for everyone” is to fall prey to half-truths.

Half-truth #1: Colorblindness will resolve racial tensions

Haidt and Jussim begin by suggesting universities “set things up so that race conveys less important information than some other salient factor” and that “people [will] pay less attention race.” This is classic colorblindness ideology (Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers, 2012), and although it may be tempting to naively believe that we can deemphasize race and focus on “other prominent social characteristic[s],” this approach will not resolve tensions.

It is all but impossible to not “see” race — it is a social category that people notice at speeds outside of consciousness — and racial stereotypes come to mind almost as quickly (Devine, 1989; Fiske, 1993). Pretending that race is not a category that we easily notice would not stop this stereotyping process. In fact, attempts to appear colorblind often exacerbate biases and make people seem more biased than when they openly acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008; Wolsko, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2000). Furthermore, exposure to colorblind messages can even make children less likely to notice bias when it does occur (Apfelbaum, Pauker, Sommers, & Ambady, 2010). Thus, empirical evidence suggests that Haidt and Jussim’s suggested colorblindness approach will aggravate, not relieve, racial tensions.

Half-truth #2: Demands to increase admission of Black students will lower standards

Critics of affirmative action often imply that increasing diversity requires lower standards, and Haidt and Jussim fall into this trap, saying “affirmative action also involves using different admissions standards for applicants of different races.” While racial group differences in test scores exist, Haidt and Jussim ignore equally well-documented relevant research on stereotype threat. Specifically, their critique fails to realize that differences in test scores have little to do with ability or qualifications, and more to do with a climate that systematically favors majority applicants. In settings that communicate that stereotypes are valid bases for evaluation, we see that Black students underperform relative to their White counterparts (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1997). Notably, messages that communicate the irrelevance of stereotypes on judgments of performance minimize these achievement gaps (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Universities concerned about underperforming minority students should consider how they can create identity-safe environments that diminish the relevance of stereotypes in judging performance, not conclude that Black students have “weaker qualifications” than White students (Purdie-Vaughns & Walton, 2011).

Half-truth #3: Race conveys useful information about academic ability

Relatedly, the assertion that “race conveys useful information about the academic capacity” of students is wholly untrue. We routinely see that relying solely on stereotypes can lead to inaccurate, and biased, assessments of others. In one heavily-publicized study, partners at law firms across the country evaluated an identical memo written by an associate who was described as either African American or Caucasian. Strikingly, partners deemed the memo written by the African American associate as less well-written, described the author as “average at best,” and said the writing needed “lots of work.” They left more charitable comments for the Caucasian associate, who was described as “generally a good writer” with “potential.” Despite the truth — that there was no difference between the two articles — partners’ judgments were influenced by stereotypes about Blacks as unintelligent and unqualified. We question the goal of those who suggest that we should judge people by stereotypes associated with their groups instead of by individual effort and performance.

Half-truth #4: Tracking subtle bias is unnecessary

Most, if not all, universities have formal mechanisms for reporting blatant racial bias, but they retain a particular blind spot for the subtler, everyday experiences with bias that students encounter. Importantly, although being a target of blatant racial bias (e.g., being called racial slur) is cause for concern, subtle instances (e.g., microaggressions) may be even more detrimental for minority students’ outcomes (Crocker, Voelkl, Testa, & Major, 1991).

The relevant research indicates that, without ways to report and track subtle instances of bias, these experiences are likely to be dismissed as mere “complaining” from people who should develop thicker skin (Kaiser & Miller, 2001). However, we know that people are quite convinced by multiple pieces of evidence supporting a claim (Chaiken, 1980; Kelley, 1973). With this in mind, institutionally-supported programs which track subtle instances of bias can serve to validate students’ claims, rather than allowing administrators and peers to dismiss them as one-off instances.We do not wish to imply that harsh sanction should follow every filing of a subtle bias claim, but that universities use such a reporting mechanism as one of the tools in their arsenal to understand how it feels to be a student on campus, and put renewed effort toward listening to students whose voices are typically silenced.

Half-truth #5: Teaching about microaggressions will only exacerbate differences, create anxiety

Toward the end of their article, Haidt and Jussim suggest that “instead of focusing on microaggressions, our campuses might talk about blunders, misconceptions and self-righteousness — and about civility and forgiveness.” They even quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet their rush to skip to forgiveness without an understanding of what there is to forgive in the first place — the blunders (microaggressions), misconceptions (stereotypes), and self-righteousness (refusal to acknowledge and discuss race) — is short-sighted and absolves people of considering how their behavior affects others.

Current conversations about microaggressions suggest that any misstep will be taken as a sign of racism. However, the goal of raising awareness of microaggressions is not to impugn majority group members by telling them they are morally bad people if they unintentionally say something offensive, nor is it to imply that minority group members are asking for “coddling” when they demand equitable conditions on campus. On the contrary, the goal is to increase knowledge of different groups’ experiences and perspectives; to teach students about what implicit bias is, where it comes from, and how it affects behavior; and to empower students to speak up when they or their peers are targets of bias. If we are to make a lasting impact in improving diversity, inclusion, and racial climate on college campuses, the first step must be to bring these concerns to light, instead of making them taboo topics unacceptable for discussion. Undeniably, these discussions may be uncomfortable at first, yet this discomfort is far from a signal of disaster. We should be wary of any diversity intervention that promises ease and comfort — discomfort often precedes prejudice reduction and behavioral change (Czopp & Monteith, 2003; Monteith, 1993).

Recommendations and Final thoughts:

Bearing this in mind, we suggest alternative approaches for universities facing the honest goal of protecting and honoring all of their students, rather than the majority alone.

  1. We agree with Haidt and Jussim’s call for rigorous experimental research to determine best practices related to diversity at universities. However, these efforts require patience and financial support. Before jumping to the conclusion that struggle indicates a lack of progress, or relying on arguments that ignore the rights and needs of underrepresented minority students, we advocate that universities seek out those who are currently conducting research on the broad realm of diversity science. In hiring such individuals to serve on faculty and in administrative positions to direct the policies developed for their institutions, universities invest in expert knowledge and policies that, contrary to Haidt’s and Jussim’s argument, are in well-documented existence.
  2. Conflict and disagreement between groups stem, in part, from a lack of understanding about different experiences (Adams, Edkins, Lacka, Pickett, & Cheryan, 2008; Nelson, Adams, & Salter, 2012). We suggest that universities incorporate a diversity requirement into their general education curricula, in which students must take classes and engage in discussions about topics they may not otherwise encounter or consider.
  3. We encourage universities to be proactive, not reactive, about addressing group differences in perspectives and experiences. A single town hall, prompted by racial tensions reaching a tipping point, will not on its own resolve deep-seated feelings of marginalization. However, if universities present open conversation about race and identity as the norm from the very start of students’ experiences on campus, we can imagine long-lasting impacts on student engagement. All components of the university should take part in this goal, from the moment students set foot on campus at orientation to the time they graduate, and even in their experiences as alumni.

Haidt and Jussim paint a bleak picture of our educational landscape, one that delivers a firm wrist-slap to universities such as Yale and Brown who have launched multi-million dollar plans to improve diversity. The authors cynically question whether universities who pledge to meet student demands to “commit money to programs and departments devoted to specific ethnic or identity groups” will “advance the protesters’ stated goal of reducing feelings of marginalization?” The answer evident in research is a resounding yes! When universities publicly pledge resources to improving diversity (not just in name, but in true spirit), it establishes a cultural norm that these students and their concerns are important (Ruggs, Martinez, & Hebl, 2011). In contrast to creating intergroup competition, these opportunities offer social support, new resources, and an opportunity to educate students, which, after all, is what we know to be the truthful aim of colleges and universities.

Evelyn is a social psychologist passionate about creating inclusive environments and helping people talk about race. www.evelyn-carter.com

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