Study shows UCLA's diversity helps reduce racial bias
The face of UCLA has changed dramatically since psychology and political science Professor David O. Sears started teaching at the campus in 1961.
Back then, his students were white, almost without exception. In his first decade of teaching, there were only two African American undergraduates in his classes and almost no Asians or Latinos.
His classes now look extremely different: The majority of his students are non-white. There are Asians, Latinos and African Americans, as well as other nationalities, such as Armenians.
Sears said one might expect such diversity to cause friction, but the transformation he’s seen has taken place without much hoopla. A new study he co-authored — and the subject of a book titled “The Diversity Challenge: Social Identity and Intergroup Relations on the College Campus” (Russell Sage, December 2008) — also confirms that, for the most part, members of the diverse student body are largely accepting of each other.
“Our diversity is serving as a way for people to get to know each other and appreciate each other,” Sears added.
The study’s authors chose UCLA because it is one of the most diverse college campuses in the nation. No single ethnic group had a clear numerical majority at the time of the study, and that remains the case today. About 2,000 UCLA students — white, Asian, and Latino — were tracked from 1996 and 2001.
The study also tracked African American students but after five years, their numbers were too small to be included in the study, Sears said.
Racial prejudice among all ethnic groups generally decreased with exposure to ethnically diverse roommates, friends and dating partners, the study found. For instance, students who were randomly assigned to roommates of a different ethnicity became more sympathetic to ethnic and racial minorities over time, and blamed them less for their own disadvantages.
Whites and Asians showed the greatest movement in terms of greater acceptance of other ethnic groups while Latinos were a close third.
“The effect of individual contact with members of other groups is really key,” Sears said. “You get up close and personal, and that’s where attitudes really start to change.”
Despite campus diversity, students of every ethnic group found a common bond: UCLA.
“They don’t react to UCLA as ‘That’s the white man’s university’ or ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with me,’” Sears said. “We found a lot of identification with UCLA.”
Sears credited UCLA’s administration for conveying a uniform message about diversity.
“UCLA works very hard on a lot of different levels to try to convey that diversity is good,” he added. “The theme is loud and clear — that UCLA is a place that values diversity.”
However, one problem that continues to plague universities, including UCLA, is the low number of African American students.
Since the 1960s, American universities have tried to integrate African Americans into what was then an almost-all-white higher education system.
“Various practices were put in place to facilitate this integration,” Sears wrote in the book. “These practices were soon applied not just to African Americans but also to many of the new immigrants, largely from Asian and Latino American countries, who were flooding into the United States.”
While the number of Asian American and Latino college students has increased since the 1960s, the integration of African Americans has been, and continues to be, a slower process, he said.
“We still haven’t dealt with what I regret is the most serious problem when it comes to diversity,” Sears said.
The study also examined how much students’ political attitudes changed while they were at UCLA.
“We found that for the most central political attitudes, such as party identification or ideology, the process was very much complete by the time they enrolled in college,” Sears said.
Sears said this finding contrasts with the popular image, especially among conservatives, that students come into college as “tabula rasas ... (and) that they’re innocent, they’re naïve, they’re gullible, and they’ll believe whatever their professors teach them.’’
“We found that is not true. Students come in with their own values and attitudes fairly well in order,” he added.
One troubling finding, Sears said, is that membership in fraternities and sororities in which whites were overrepresented increased the members’ opposition to an ethnically diverse campus. Members of these groups also became stronger in opposition to mixed marriages and their belief that ethnic organizations promote separatism.
By the same token, members of minority-specific campus groups believed there was more ethnic discrimination and conflict among groups.
“There is a little yellow flag there, and the campus should monitor those kinds of groups to make sure they become more the exception than the norm,” Sears said.