Close interaction with African-Americans improves behavior and attitudes about race amongst whites, according to a study co-authored by Texas A&M University Economics Professor Mark Hoekstra.
Hoekstra’s co-authors in “The Impact of Intergroup Contact on Racial Attitudes and Revealed Preferences,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, are fellow economics professors Scott Carrell from the University of California-Davis and James West of Baylor University. They examined U.S. Air Force Academy students who are randomly assigned to peer groups to see if white males’ stated attitudes and behavior toward blacks changed based on the number of black peers with whom they interacted.
“In the first year at the Air Force Academy, cadets are randomly assigned to different squadrons; they interact a lot with the others in their squadron – they live together, eat together, and train together,” Hoekstra explains. “We ask whether white men who were randomly assigned to squadrons with more African-Americans, or with African-Americans of higher-than-average academic ability, reported more favorable views of blacks in general. And more importantly, we asked whether the type and quantity of exposure caused whites to behave differently toward other African-Americans later on.”
The researchers found when white men were randomly assigned to squadrons with more, or higher-than-average ability African-Americans, they were significantly more likely to pair up with other black roommates in sophomore year. “That is, more exposure to African-Americans in one year means whites were more likely to choose to spend a significant amount of time with a different African-American in the future,” says Hoekstra.
These effects were largest for white men from the South, he adds.
He notes such results could also been seen outside military settings, but may be more difficult to interpret.
“White people who frequently interact with African-Americans might be less racist, but it is hard to know why,” he explains. “It could be that interaction caused them to be less racist, but it could also be that they were less racist to begin with. By studying cadets at the Air Force Academy, we can overcome that problem by exploiting the fact that cadets are randomly assigned to squadrons.”
Hoekstra says he views the findings as positive in that they suggest that not only can negative racial attitudes be changed, but so can the behavior that stems from those attitudes. “The findings suggest that a way to do that is to increase the quantity and quality of interactions with people of other races,” he says.
So why are economists studying race relations to begin with?
“Economists study discrimination in part because it is one explanation for the black-white earnings gap,” Hoekstra notes. “Research has consistently found that blacks earn less than whites, even after controlling for observed characteristics such as education, occupation, experience, etc.
“In addition, the presence of discrimination affects economic efficiency. For example, if discriminatory firms fail to hire productive African-American workers, it means that the economy will produce less than it should. Similarly, the prospect of facing labor market discrimination can dissuade African-Americans from investing in skills that would make them (and the economy) more productive.”
He says it’s important to know that attitudes about race can change for the better.
“One way to address racial discrimination is to penalize those who are caught being discriminatory,” he says. “But another is to do things that will improve racial attitudes in the first place.
“Our findings suggest that if white people have more close and positive interactions with African-Americans, they will change their behavior toward new and different African-Americans in the future.”
Media contact: Lesley Henton, Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University; 979-845-5591, firstname.lastname@example.org
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