The White-Nonwhite Gap in Racial Acceptance

Dr. Walter Stephan, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University,made it his life's work to survey students' racial attitudes after their first year of desegregation. He is one of the most respected scholars in the field,and he is fervently supportive of school integration. It's important to note this in advance, because there's two broad conclusions to be drawn from his data, both of which made me uncomfortable to confront.

The first, tragic conclusion is that school integration just as often decreases racial acceptance as improves it.

But right now, we want to focus on the second conclusion:white students come out looking worse when it comes to racial attitudes.

Stephan found that in only 16 percent of the desegregated schools examined, the attitudes of whites toward African-Americans became more favorable. In 48 percent of the schools, white students' attitudes toward blacks became worse. African-American attitudes were also mixed, but overall were significantly less dismal. African-Americans attitudes toward whites improved38 percent of the time, and turned in the negative direction 24 percent of the time.

This distinction between white students and nonwhite students appears very often in the research. The question is, how to interpret it? Is it simply racism, being handed down to the children by their families and society?

Recently, the Civil Rights Project studied high-school juniors in six school districts around the country. One of those was Louisville, which appears to be a place where desegregation has had the intended benefits. Surveys of high-school juniors there show that more than 80 percent of students (of all races) feel their school experience has helped them work with and get along with members of other races and ethnic groups. More than 85 percent feel their school's diversity has prepared them to work in a diverse job setting.

But other districts didn't look so great. Lynn, Mass.,which is 10 miles northeast of Boston, is generally regarded as another model of diversity and successful school desegregation.

When its students were polled if they'd like to live in a diverse neighborhood when they grow up, about 70 percent of the nonwhite high-school juniors said they wanted to. But only 37 percent of whites wanted to. Asked if they'd like to work in a racially diverse setting when they were an adult, only 40 percent of the whites said yes.

We were saddened to see these numbers, yet the Civil Rights Project considers Lynn a success. One reason is simply the improvement – the numbers would have been so much worse three decades ago. Another thing to consider is economic class in the local context: the way "diverse neighborhood" or "diverse workplace" can be, implicitly, code for "lower-working-class neighborhood" or "factory job."In that sense, a "diverse neighborhood" might be a step up in class for the immigrant Vietnamese and Somalis enclaves in Lynn, and a "diverse workplace" might mean a high-wage position at General Electric's jet-engine plant. In the same way, those terms can be seen as a step down in class for those living in Ward One or the Diamond District on the water, or anyone with a legacy to Lynn's NorthShore affluence of a century ago–high-schoolers who fully intend to leave Lynn for Boston as soon as they can afford it.

Language barriers can also contribute to the phenomenon.Dr. Linda Tropp recently did a cross-sectional sampling of kindergarten to second-grade children from 52 schools in central California.This allowed her to compare the racial attitudes and friendship preferences of Anglo children against Latino children. It also allowed Tropp to compare how these preferences were affected by bilingual classrooms versus English-only instruction, as well as compare racially balanced classrooms against classes where there was only token representation of other races.

Tropp found that for Latino students, these classroom types did not matter – they were as likely to choose Anglo friends as Latino friends.

But the white children had a significant tendency to prefer other white children. In no type of classroom did this bias completely disappear, but it was dramatically better in bilingual classes and racially balanced classrooms.

This tells us that when children of different ethnicities can communicate in each other's language, friendship bias dramatically decreases. And while Anglo children in the bilingual program were still a little biased in whom they chose as friends, it's worth noting that the majority of the Latino children probably had been learning both Spanish and English since birth. The vast majority of those Anglo children only began learning Spanish in kindergarten. The Anglo children might still be choosing friends simply on the basis of who they can comfortably communicate with,rather than choosing on the basis of race.

These different factors – economic class, life ambition,culture, and language – are not meant as excuses for racist attitudes. Racism is clearly the result. The point is, this racism is not necessarily taught by parents. In fact, almost the opposite – parental silence allows these factors undue influence. In the absence of clear, explicit antidiscrimination lessons from white parents, their children are observing the world and coming to their own conclusions.

According to Dr. Rebecca Bigler, children are not passive absorbers of knowledge. Rather, they are active constructors of concepts. "Kids look around at the world, and it's obvious to them that race is linked to things–that people with brown skin might live in different neighborhoods where the houses are smaller, or that there's not many white people working i the lower-status jobs. It's plainly visible that cities are segregated. If nobody tells kids why this is so–if nobody tells kids our history–then they'll make up their own reasons."