I'm Not Racist! One of my Best Friends Is Black!*

Diversity 101: Having  “x” number of friends who are (insert ethnicity here) does not make you less prejudiced.

Or does it?

There’s a possibility it could for college students.

An NYT article published last week outlined the findings from studies that suggested that interracial college roomate pairings may reduce prejudice. There are quite a few of these discussing benefits of having a roomate or friends on campus who are of different ethnicities that range from increased positive attitude toward other races to boosting GPA’s. But the one that has been generating the most buzz at sites like angry asian man and Resist Racism is this study from UCLA cited in the article as follows:

Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.

Strange, not to mention disturbing.  But even more disturbing, the study quotes two sets of data: prejudice ratings after freshman year with a randomly assigned roommate and the same ratings longitudinally after each subsequent year of college. The findings from the first year were found even more consistently in the longitudinal data.  The study offers the following hypotheses for the effect:

Specifically, peer
socialization studies indicate that students are likely to
modify their attitudes and behaviors to be consistent
with those of their peers (Feldman & Newcomb,
1969). If Asian American students have significantly
higher levels of prejudice than other students, increased
prejudice as a function of contact with them could be
the result of an attitude shift in the direction of their
higher levels of racism and ethnocentrism.

One obvious possible answer to this question is peer socialization. Specifically, peer socialization studies indicate that students are likely to modify their attitudes and behaviors to be consistent with those of their peers (Feldman & Newcomb,1969). If Asian American students have significantly higher levels of prejudice than other students, increased prejudice as a function of contact with them could be the result of an attitude shift in the direction of their higher levels of racism and ethnocentrism.

Exposure to Asian American roommates may increase prejudice for several reasons. First, because Asian Americans are considered a ‘‘model minority’’ and have achieved intermediate ethnic group status in the United States (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999; Smith, 1991), exposure to members of this ethnic group may increase the likelihood of negative social comparisons between Asian Americans and ethnic groups with lower social status (i.e., African Americans and Latinos; Smith, 1991).

However, reading the study reveals methodological concerns that may have affected its outcomes. The ethnic breakdown of the incoming class at UCLA in 1996, the year the study began, was 36% Asian American, 32% White, 18% Latino and 6% African American. Could the fact that Asian American students were the majority have affected how they interacted with students from other ethnic groups? As noted by Ghanaian senior, Sam Boakye in the NYT article, “If you’re surrounded by whites, you have something to prove,” said Mr.Boakye, now a rising senior who was born in Ghana. “You’re pushed to do better, to challenge the stereotype that black people are not that smart.” Boakye is describing a situation in which one is an extreme minority required to conform to a social environment dominated by another race. It is possible that since Asian students were the majority on the UCLA campus they didn’t feel the need to “impress” their White counterparts.

Then  again, that may be a premature question. Maybe we should first know who we mean when we say “Asian American”? According to the study of the 753 “Asian Americans” who participated in the freshman year sample were Chinese (42.6%), Korean (17.8%), Filipino (12.2%), South East Asian (11%), East Indian (6.8%), Japanese (6.6%) and Pacific Islanders (0.5%). That’s a lot of different origins to be lumping together under the umbrella term “Asian”. ** Were there certain pairings that were more contentious than others and yielded more negative effects?

Interestingly the article doesn’t mention who Asian American students had the strongest prejudice-inducing effect on: White students. Given that Asian and White students were the two largest groups on campus, could this be responsible for some of that dynamic? Also weirdly, exposure to White roomates increased positive feelings toward other Asians in Asian American students. In addition Asian American students were not the only ones who had a detrimental effect on their roomates. According to the study exposure to White roomates increased prejudice measures particularly in Black and Latino students, such as sense of unease toward other ethnicities, lack of competence interacting with other ethnicities and opposition to interracial dating and marriage.

The overall finding of the study was that living with people of different ethnicities may decrease prejudice but that seems to be heavily dependent on who you room with. Also there are strange effects everywhere that are hard to explain like for Black students, exposure to randomly assigned Latino students actually decreased the sense of competence they felt interacting with students of other ethnic groups,  exposure to randomly assigned heterogeneous roommates tended to increase Black students opposition to interethnic marriage and dating, and for Latino students, exposure to randomly assigned heterogeneous roommates decreased outgroup dating.

Read the study – it’s a little daunting with all the “partial correlations” and multiple regressions (paging Nate Silver!) but the discussion portions are wholly comprehensible even for a stats noob. I’m curious about what other people’s experiences were like in college – as a Black person at a PWI what was far more common in my experience was “minority clumping”, so particularly if you had a White roomate, you probably didn’t hang out with them. Also many of us learnt to have great disdain for the hygiene and cleanliness standards of our housemates (shudders). What do you think? Is random roomate assignment to someone of a different ethnicity the way to go?

* When measuring the ethnic heterogeneity of friend-circles in the study, having a Black friend was given more weight than say, an Asian friend because they were sauch a minority on compus. Also the greatest effects in reducing prejudice was seen in White students paired with Black students – there was even a carry-over effect where increased positive feelings toward Black students resulted in increased positive feelings toward Latinos as well.  (*cue Magical Negroes*)

** Latino students were similarly broken up into groups: MexicanAmerican (76.5%), Cantral American (10.6%), South American (7.8%) and Other Latino (5.1%). “Black” and “White” students are apparently just that.

  • Grump

    RANDOM roommate assignments are a great start but I don’t think that is the final solution. At the University of Missouri, alot of the Black students were uneasy about how random the roommate assignments were made in the dorms because there were several floors in a dorm where the majority of the students were Black women who were who were paired together. While making up a paultry 5.9% of the population, we found it hard to believe that the system would randomly do that. Then it happened again and again for 3 more years.

    But, roommate assignments are just the 1st step. There should still be some level of interaction outside of the dorm room that should help foster the reduction of racial prejudices on campus.

  • SEK

    According to the study of the 753 “Asian Americans” who participated in the freshman year sample were Chinese (42.6%), Korean (17.8%), Filipino (12.2%), South East Asian (11%), East Indian (6.8%), Japanese (6.6%) and Pacific Islanders (0.5%). That’s a lot of different origins to be lumping together under the umbrella term “Asian”.

    As someone who’s taught in the UC system for nearly a decade now, one thing that strikes me about this point in particular is that it doesn’t account for racism that exists between the groups lumped under “Asian American.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, say, a Korean student call a Chinese student a rube, or a Japanese student grimace when I paired him or her with a Thai or Vietnamese student. Growing up in the South, there was one Asian-American student in my entire school, so I never knew how strong the intraracial—if you want to call it that, which I don’t since the point is that this particular racial fiction is intensely fictional—animosity was between all these people white folks can’t tell apart.

    All of which is only to say: I wonder whether this category error might factor into why whites paired with Asian-American roommates became more prejudiced, i.e. they became more prejudiced against Chinese with a Korean roommate, or Thai with a Japanese roommate, &c.

  • This is all very interesting to me. My CA high school had demographics similar to those at UCLA, but I went on to an HBCU. And additionally, I was lucky enough to room with two girls from NorCal my freshman year, so not much culture shock there.

    Alls I know is that the Asian kids I went to high school with all had different group dynamics, and it seems silly to lump Filipinos in with, say, Vietnamese; especially if you’ve spent any time around either group.

  • Re: “minority clumping” –

    I did my undergrad at the University of Michigan, the supposed bastion of affirmative action. In fact, I was in LA visiting UCLA in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled one of the more recent Michigan affirmative action cases. I liked Michigan’s stance, defending AA, so I more or less made my decision then and there to go to school in Ann Arbor.

    I might be off-base here, but I have a suspicion that those of us that went to state schools know that the realities of “diversity” are far from, well, diverse. Michigan was hyper-segregated at times, but what’s worse was that segregation was institutionalized by the housing office. Most white folks were in the dark about this, but the black students definitely recognized that they all happened to be concentrated in one freshman dorm (which just to happened to be the worst dorm on campus). I worked for admissions, and even asked my bosses about it. They argue that it creates a system of social support–a concept that might spark even more conversation here.

    While I’m on the topic of admissions, we even had a special visit day for admitted students of color, which some of my coworkers felt tricked HS kids into thinking there were tons of minorities at Michigan (about 12% underrepresented).

    The point I’m trying to make here is that minority clumping, at least at Michigan, was often looked at by whites as self-segregation. The reality was that the University played a dubious (if not paternalistically well-meaning) hand in its creation.

  • Haven’t read the article, but I scanned through the works they cited and was (a) surprised that there are so many rather “old” studies on there and (b) little from some education researchers who have published longitudinal studies on this issue. It’s like the social psychologist don’t speak to the education researchers. That’s said. Anyway, that’s more about the academy than the article.

    Is there any mention of the racial climate in mid-90s California? I’m sure any freshman at UCLA aware of his/her surroundings would know about Prop 209, which was on the ballot that November. I wonder if the discussion over diversity and affirmative action impacted students’ perceptions. Maybe some white students realized that black and Latino students weren’t the ones taking “their” seats. It was the Asian kids. Asians are a significant part of California’s population, but they’re still overrepresented at all UCs.

    Also, I’m not sure living with anyone in a cramped dorm room — UCLA housing crammed most freshmen in to “triples,” dorm rooms made for 2 students but made to fit 3 due to overcrowding on “the hill” — is going to help you see a person from that racial or ethnic group any better.

    I entered in 1998 (just as Prop 209 went into effect) and lived in a triple with a Chinese girl and a Korean girl. I’d gone to high school with lots of Chinese and Korean kids, but living with them was new. Living with them was fine, except for the few times they did normal annoying roommate things (e.g., borrow my stuff without asking).