As my name and photo indicate, I could scarcely be less of a minority, and so I cannot say much about what the campus climate toward minorities is actually like. Many of the individuals who have spoken up following the murky happenings on the 600 block of South Forest, however, have been minorities and many are uncomfortable with the current state of affairs. I have no reason to disbelieve their appraisal.

Jess Cox

What I will not simply take on faith, though, are the myriad suggestions for change that have been voiced. If there is a genuine problem to be tackled regarding discrimination against minorities, then we assume a responsibility to critically evaluate proposed solutions.

For some, the solution was a simple plea for change, for things to somehow, some way move from worse to better. I give them a point for bothering to join the discussion, but fail them in the realm of effectiveness. Others came prepared with suggestions and after reading the relevant news pieces, editorials, columns and open letters, I found twelve specific proposals. I only have space to talk about a few.

Several sources have requested that the University and other minority groups – including those not specifically targeted – publicly condemn discriminatory behavior. In the behavioral science literature, this approach is called altruistic punishment, and requires that all members of a community impose sanctions on norm-violators, even when not directly harmed. When combined with the ability to reward acceptable actions, such sanctions are quite successful in maintaining high levels of normative behavior.

But this approach assumes that those being punished are significantly affected by the punishment. This is easy to manage in research settings and computer simulations, but less so in a community setting. There the sanctioned can simply disregard the castigations of the minority community (who, their actions suggest, they do not respect to begin with). To significantly punish those who transgress, it is essential to elicit sanctions from the groups that the transgressors belong to (such as their family, friends and social organizations).

A series of requests have also been made for new “distinct programs” to combat bias-motivated behavior. I am dubious about the efficacy of additional programs, even more so after reading a pair of survey articles on bias-motivated crimes and finding no specific programs that have been empirically shown to decrease discriminatory behavior. To the extent that campus groups are driven to organize such programs, they should focus on implementation not solely at the University but also (perhaps even primarily) in elementary and middle schools. But even with early intervention, it is not clear from current research that decreasing the number of youth with prejudicial attitudes will lead to a decrease in bias-motivated behavior later in life.

If change is to be enacted here at the University, one possible guide for success derives from findings in the psychology of intergroup conflict. In the 1950s and ’60s, a series of experiments by Muzafer Sherif and colleagues examined the interactions between young boys at a simulated summer camp. By merely placing the boys in two different cabins, the researchers were able to observe the emergence of within-group solidarity, negative stereotyping of the out-group and hostile between group interactions – all in children from the same racial, religious and economic backgrounds.

Attempts to diminish intergroup conflict in these experiments through peace meetings between group leaders, discussions of brotherly love and forgiveness and joint participation in pleasant activities all failed. Sherif ultimately managed to reduce conflict by creating superordinate goals, objectives both groups wanted to achieve and could best be attained by intergroup cooperation. It is not immediately apparent how such superordinate goals could be established in the University community, or what exactly they would be, but research indicates their establishment would be beneficial. I encourage motivated individuals and groups to consider what these goals may be and how they may be implemented, and to communicate their thoughts to the University community.

Interestingly, research following Sherif’s initial experiments has indicated that superordinate goals facilitate reduced hostilities by diminishing group boundaries, making it more difficult for individuals to marginalize and discriminate by making the out-group seem more like the in-group, and vice versa. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the University community, then, is to figure out how to balance the reflexive intensification of in-group identification during times of apparent threat (something that is clearly occurring at present) with the knowledge that it is the blurring, rather than the strengthening, of group boundaries that helps to alleviate intergroup hostilities.

The solution to this dilemma, maintaining a strong racial/ethnic/religious/sexual identity without sowing the seeds of intergroup conflict, is far from trivial. Again, I am open to suggestions.


Jackson can be reached at edjacks@umich.edu.


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