Expanding diversity programs on campus will heighten, not reduce, racial tensions

In a 2004 study designed to examine the effects of “ethnic enclaves,” a team of social psychologists led by Jim Sidanius (now at Harvard) tracked most of the incoming freshmen at the University of California, Los Angeles. They measured attitudes in the week before classes started and surveyed the same students each spring for the next four years. The study allowed the researchers to see how joining an organization based on ethnic identity changed students’ attitudes.

The results were mostly grim. For black, Asian and Latino students, “membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.” The authors also examined the effect on white students of joining fraternities and sororities and found similar effects, including an increased sense of ethnic victimization and opposition to intergroup dating.

There may be academic reasons for creating these ethnic centers, but if the goal of expanding such programs is to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture on campus, the best current research suggests that the effort will backfire.