The Four Conditions of Intergroup Contact

You've probably never heard of Gordon Allport. But his research affects the lives of everyone in the U.S., on a daily basis, and it has done so for over 50 years.

Back in 1954, Allport was one of 32 social scientists who had signed on to what was known as "the social science statement" – a document included in the NAACP's submissions to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board. In the social science statement, the scholars enumerated the damaging psychological effects of racial segregation. One of Allport's theories – something he called "contact theory" – was one of the underpinnings for the scientists' work.

The modern premise behind desegregation is that when people are exposed to people of different races and ethnicities, that will inherently reduce their racial bias – and that concept is often described as Allport's contact theory. However, that's a misnomer.

Allport didn't postulate that merely throwing people together will lead to mutual understanding and regard. Instead, Allport specified four conditions that were needed before bias could melt away: equal status between groups; common goals; intergroup cooperation; and support from authorities. Allport based this on the research on integration available at the time – notably 1940s and 1950s case studies on the integration of merchant marines, police departments, and housing projects.

When the Supreme Court issued its Brown opinion, the scholars were thrilled to see that a portion of the opinion included references to the social science research – the first opinion ever to do so.

More than 50 years later, in the summer of 2007, another set of scholars sent a new amicus brief to the Supreme Court, yet again arguing in favor of the benefits of school desegregation for Meredith vs Jefferson County Board of Education.

However, compared to the number of signatories in the Brown social statement, the list on this brief was enormous: 553 scholars comprising a who's who of social science research. All of the scholars were strong supporters of desegregation in schools.

Which is why when Ashley and I first read the amicus brief, we were flummoxed by how circumspect the scholars were in their statement to the Court. (Ashley was particularly bewildered, since she's an attorney who has drafted briefs for appellate litigation.)

Then we started reading the underlying research, and we started to see things differently.

In the 50 years since Allport, there have been hundreds of studies setting out to determine if creation of the conditions Allport had identified could actually reduce prejudice.

In 2006, Drs. Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp went through 515 of such studies. They came to the conclusion that contact theory does work: there is indeed a consistent, modest benefit to such contact in reducing prejudice between groups. At first glance, one gets the impression, "Wow, there's 515 studies proving that school diversity improves racial tolerance." It seems like an enormity of evidence.

However, the studies they analyzed include many different types of intergroup contact – they looked at studies of gender discrimination, religious bias, discrimination against the elderly and the handicapped, and homophobia.

Surprisingly, the Pettigrew-Tropp meta-analysis offers little support on schoolchildren and racial attitudes. Over 300 of the included studies are about adults – not about children. Many are from other countries (the meta-analysis pulled papers from 38 nations.). There were quite a few studies showing how racially-integrated colleges improve relationships, but college students were not proof of what elementary and high school students do.

Of studies on children or teenagers in American schools, specifically dealing with race relations, there were only about 20 studies listed – way less than the 515. Several were unpublished. Others were studies of very small populations – single classes or grades in a school. Several studies were 50 years old. We were suddenly down to a dozen or so studies. When we dug into the last pile, we had to rule some of them out too – they turned out to be studies of gender and racial attitudes (girls are more tolerant than boys, it turns out), or they argued the obvious, such as that kids with cross-racial friends have positive views of other races.

Extremely few studies directly proved the point that diverse schools improve racial attitudes. Four of the studies in our final pile actually showed the opposite – that racial attitudes worsened after intergroup contact.

The research turned out to be decidedly mixed, and we were speechless. So we interviewed a number of the scholars who worked on the Supreme Court brief – and we talked to Linda Tropp.

We thought they would explain how we'd misread their data, show us what we were missing. But they didn't. One after one, they reluctantly admitted that there are really still only a handful of studies on kids and racial attitudes in school desegregation contexts – and the results of these are mixed.

But the scholars then all vigorously insisted that contact theory worked in schools – or would work. For a long time, we couldn't understand the contradiction. But we eventually came to realize what they were talking about.

It comes back to Allport's four requirements for reducing bias – equal status; common goals; cooperation; and support from authorities. Rarely is even one of these conditions found in integrated schools: to have all four is extremely unlikely.

For example, while children have equal legal status as students, they don't all share equal academic status or social status: they have different academic abilities, different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rather than cooperating, kids in school are often compete against one another. Grades are often administered on a curve. Scholarships and spots on teams – they're usually awarded by besting another classmate.

Kids don't have common goals. What they want to get out of school – even a given class – varies tremendously. They're not working together; they're working side by side.

And, of course, Allport's fourth condition was Support from Authorities. But real encouragement of inter-racial exchange is usually non-existent. All too often, parents and teachers are unwilling to talk about race openly. They think this silence is the key to respect, but instead, they inadvertently teaching their students that racial dialogue and exchanges are too dangerous to participate in. Their silence keeps kids apart, rather than encouraging them to come together.

Which is why, 50 years after Allport and Brown v. Board, the modern scholars are so tempered in supporting one of their most fervently believed-in theories.

The sad hard truth is that, in schools, Allport's theory remains just a theory. It's just never been enough of a societal priority to actually implement it the way it would be required to make it work.