Campus News

UW-Madison study: only small fraction of campus community discriminates

The research shows certain acts of discrimination are committed by a small fraction of the community. However, racism and a lack of inclusivity toward students from marginalized backgrounds still exists on campus.

The research shows certain acts of discrimination are committed by a small fraction of the community. However, racism and a lack of inclusivity toward students from marginalized backgrounds still exists on campus.

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A recently published study from a UW-Madison psychology lab found that only a small proportion of individuals commit certain types of racist and discriminatory acts on campus, providing data that could be used to counter intolerance and a lack of inclusivity toward students who come from marginalized backgrounds. 

UW psychology professor Markus Brauer and student Mitchell Campbell led the research in observing how individuals from marginalized backgrounds were treated by others from non-marginalized backgrounds on the UW campus. 

Brauer’s lab, which focuses on group phenomena, hired student actors to represent marginalized backgrounds, in the Muslim, Black and Asian communities, and a male student sporting a gay pride T-shirt, and immersed them in everyday activities on campus. The researchers then followed and observed their interactions with others, such as who held the door open for them, who would pick up scattered papers in the elevators and who would sit next to them on the bus if a seat were left open next to them.

In their analysis, Brauer and his researchers determined the majority of people did not discriminate in these situations. The subjects of the experiment treated the students from marginalized backgrounds the same as their non-marginalized counterparts. 

“We were surprised by these results,” Brauer said in a UW news release. “We tried out one situation, then another one, and so forth. But study after study came back with the same result: Most students did not treat our white actor more positively than the Black, Asian, or Muslim actors.”

The study’s research model included five field experiments with eight different samples. Results indicated between five and 20 percent of participants exhibited discriminatory behavior. Brauer and Campbell said the findings aligned with the “Pareto principle”, meaning roughly 80 percent of the effects resulted from 20 percent of the causes.

In addition to the study, researchers also administered a survey questioning marginalized students about their experience on campus. In the 500 responses, respondents categorized about 50 percent of their peers as “inclusive” or “very inclusive,” and another 25 percent labeled as “middle of the road” meaning they engage in neither inclusive nor discriminatory behavior.

The last 20 to 25 percent of students were labeled as those who engaged in either “direct or indirect forms of discrimination,” according to the news release. 

“Our studies show that racism and lack of inclusion continue to be very serious problems,” Brauer said. “Given the sheer number of individuals that students from marginalized backgrounds interact with, they are very frequently the target of discrimination or offensive comments. This is what they report, this is what our studies show, and this is what many other studies show.”

It remains unknown whether these findings can be generalized to other settings. The studies do not address systemic forms of racism and discrimination and should be considered with discretion. 

“We studied relatively simple behaviors in fleeting public interactions,” Brauer said. “We didn’t study microaggressions, nor how violently people react to norm transgressions. We also don’t know what happens in study groups or how many students make offensive statements in classroom discussions.”

In addition to the latest research, Brauer and his team have also developed methods to increase tolerance and diminish harmful discriminatory interactions at UW-Madison through large-scale field experiments. Brauer believes communicating about inclusivity maintains the same importance as other messages concerning public health. 

“Promoting inclusion and dismantling systemic racism is one of the most important issues of our times. And yet, it turns out that many pro-diversity initiatives are not being evaluated,” Brauer said. “We really need evidence-based practices, but for a long time we’ve had no idea whether the things we do in the diversity domain actually have a beneficial effect. We’re hoping to change that.”

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