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March 10, 2003

New study bolsters case for affirmative action

By Jennifer McNulty

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments next month in the strongest challenge to affirmative action in decades, UCSC’s Thomas Pettigrew has compiled powerful evidence of the value of policies that encourage diversity.

Policies that expand minority opportunities lead to reduced prejudice, Thomas Pettigrew found. Photo: Gary Parker

Contact among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds significantly reduces prejudice, according to Pettigrew, a research professor of psychology who recently completed an exhaustive review of more than 500 studies on the topic.

"Separation limits the amount of intergroup contact we can have, and that leads to greater prejudice, discrimination, and conflict," said Pettigrew. "Policies that expand minority opportunities create optimal intergroup contact and lead to reduced prejudice."

A resounding 94 percent of the studies confirmed the basic theory that contact with members of other groups reduces prejudice, a figure that surprised even Pettigrew and his colleagues.

Pettigrew presented his work to about 60 people during a noon-hour talk March 4 as part of the Diversity Lecture Series sponsored by the UCSC Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Office.

Pettigrew’s reformulation of the theory of intergroup contact, which he defined as actual face-to-face interaction between members of clearly defined groups, offers valuable insights into the ways in which diversity reduces prejudice.

Most importantly, contact reduces prejudice against "outsiders" by changing how people feel, which is the best predictor of intergroup behavior, said Pettigrew. For example, having contact with African Americans changes how whites feel about blacks, which turns out to be a far more reliable predictor of their behavior than what they believe or the stereotypes they hold, he said.

In addition, these findings hold true for prejudice based on sexual orientation, age, mental illness, and physical disability. Moreover, benefits were evident throughout the world, including such ethnically stratified regions as South Africa, Germany, Israel, and the southern United States.

In a South African study, Pettigrew said, white South African women revealed less racial prejudice after contact with a black African housekeeper. "Over and over again, we find that if we become familiar with something, we come to like it," said Pettigrew. "Familiarity itself leads to the liking."

Pettigrew’s findings were based on an exhaustive review, called a meta-analysis, of studies on intergroup contact. With UCSC graduate student Linda Tropp, now an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, Pettigrew enlisted the help of staff at McHenry Library and 12 undergraduates. The research team reviewed the findings of 516 studies that encompassed nearly 1,400 tests and more than 250,000 subjects from 38 nations.

Pettigrew and Tropp subjected their findings to further analysis to address the concerns of critics, including those who suggest plausible alternative explanations for the documented reduction in prejudice. One such alternative holds that people who are less prejudiced to begin with seek out diversity and are more receptive to change.

True, said Pettigrew, but closer evaluation of the studies showed an even stronger effect among individuals who had no choice about their situations.
Other critics charge that all meta-analyses are inherently flawed because they reflect a publishing bias for research that supports the hypothesis being studied, in this case contact theory. Pettigrew and Tropp went to extraordinary lengths to compare the findings of published and unpublished studies and found an even larger effect in unpublished studies.

Pettigrew and Tropp also countered critics who charge that prejudice is only reduced among the specific individuals with whom one interacts. On the contrary, he found that prejudice against all members of the "outsider" group declines.
Finally, the authors compared the strength of the effect among the whole range of 516 studies, from the most rigorous to the least. The more rigorous the study, he found, the stronger the effect.

Bolstered by such "robust" findings, Pettigrew believes social policies that encourage intergroup contact, such as affirmative action, are precisely what today’s multicultural world needs.

Responding to questions about separate graduation ceremonies, Latino-only dormitories, and other race-based college programs, Pettigrew expressed grave concerns.

"It’s always a tradeoff, but I think having your cultural identity and maximizing contact are not necessarily in conflict," he said, noting that student demands for separate housing and academic programs almost always emerge after students have given up on being accepted as an "integral part of the campus."

"I remember a colleague’s observation that universities never listen to minority demands until students are asking for segregation, and then they respond with obscene haste," he added ruefully.

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