Professional Development

Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles

The design principles developed by the CODA panel are meant to provide guidelines for action to those selecting or developing strategies to improve intergroup relations. They are also meant to focus discussion and research on the characteristics of program effectiveness.

In 1995, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a number of papers to summarize research that could be used to improve race relations in schools and youth organizations. A panel of researchers comprised of Willis D. Hawley, James A. Banks, Amado M. Padillo, Donald B. Pope-Davis and Janet Schofield met and drew from these papers several principles for designing comprehensive approaches to improving race relations.

No effort has been made to summarize the research that supports these principles in the brief discussion that follows each of them. Those readers who are seeking related research will find much of what they are looking for in the full volume: W. D. Hawley & A. W. Jackson, Eds. Toward a Common Destiny. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1995.

Principle 1: Strategies should address both institutional and individual sources of prejudice and discrimination in the contexts and situations in which the participants in the program or activity learn, work, and live.

Sources of prejudice and discrimination are often rooted in particular historical and social contexts, and are shaped by institutional structures and practices. Seeking to change individuals without dealing with these influences, or without engaging the specific issues that shape intergroup relations, is often futile.

Institutional and contextual forces that might be considered in the development and implementation of a strategy for improving intergroup relations include structures and practices—such as tracking, assessment practices, or selection processes—and beliefs, stereotypes, and stories that have become part of the local lore. However, a key point to keep in mind in designing programs and practices is that power differences, real or imagined, are often at the heart of intergroup tensions and have to be dealt with if behaviors are to change in significant ways.

Principle 2: Strategies should seek to influence the behavior of individuals, including their motivation and capability to influence others, and not be limited to efforts to increase knowledge and awareness.

There are two separable but related points embedded in this principle. First, when strategies meant to improve intergroup relations do not specifically include lessons about how to act in accordance with new awareness and knowledge, they are likely to be ineffective in changing relationships. Most of us are not as competent as we need to be in our interactions with people we perceive to be culturally different. Even people with good intentions sometimes do the wrong thing. Second, prejudice and discrimination are socially influenced. Thus, altering our own behavior may require that we enlist the support of others. Moreover, changing the experience of those who are the victims of prejudice and discrimination may require that we contribute to a climate of tolerance and goodwill by seeking to change the behavior of others whose words and actions reflect racial or ethnic prejudice.

Principle 3: Strategies should deal with the dispositions and behavior of all racial and ethnic groups involved.

Often, race relations programs and activities focus on awareness and knowledge about, and behavior toward, persons of color. And some of these programs focus on the treatment of and attitude toward a single racial or ethnic group. Where racial and ethnic diversity exists, diversity provides an opportunity for learning and for comparison that can help avoid oversimplification or stereotyping. Moreover, whites have varying cultures and identities. Raising awareness of this reality may serve to increase the sophistication of the lesson being taught and learned.

Principle 4: Strategies should include participants who reflect the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the context and should be structured in such a way as to ensure cooperative, equal-status roles for persons from different groups.

The best-documented strategy for improving racial and ethnic relations involves the creation of opportunities for positive equalstatus interaction among people from different groups. These strategies are most effective when they organize cooperative activities so as to ensure that people from different backgrounds can contribute equally to the task involved.

People involved in intergroup activities bring to those experiences assumptions about the roles they should play that are based on expectations shaped by preexisting attributions of power, by stereotypes, and by habits of behavior of groups. These assumptions may lead to very unequal participation by different racial and ethnic groups, which, in turn, may affect what is learned and the value that participants assign to the experience. Thus, strategies involving cooperative interdependence among persons of different races and ethnic groups should be carefully structured to ensure that all participants are encouraged to make useful and valued contributions to the group. Note, however, that when strategies involving competition among groups are used to encourage cooperation, situations should be avoided in which racially or ethnically identifiable groups compete against one another.

Principle 5: Strategies should have the support and participation of those with authority and power in any given setting.

People with power and authority send messages more by their deeds than by their words. Those who are asked to engage in learning activities meant to improve intergroup relations will usually want to know what those who have put them into the situation have done and are doing about the lessons they are being asked to learn. When those in positions of authority are too busy too participate in race relations programs, the impact of the program will be undermined unless the leaders’ record on the issue of discrimination is clear.

People in organizations where better intergroup relations and equity are being advocated will ask whether those in authority are modeling appropriate behaviors and “walking the talk.” They will also want to know whether qualified persons of color are being aggressively recruited for high offices, whether those who pursue equity with enthusiasm are being supported and rewarded, and whether those who engage in discriminatory behavior are being negatively sanctioned.

Principle 6: Strategies should involve children at an early age, and new entrants to organizations should be continually encouraged and reinforced.

There are good reasons to start teaching the importance of and strategies for positive intergroup relations when children are young. But “early intervention” is not enough. As children mature, they become more conscious of racial and ethnic differences, and the many sources of prejudice and discrimination they experience can influence them in negative ways. Lessons learned at an early age or at the time a person becomes a member of an organization may not stick even though they do make later lessons related to prejudice and discrimination easier to teach and learn.

In many organizations, new participants are told of the organizations’ commitment to positive intergroup relations. This introduction may include workshops on “diversity” or other activities aimed at facilitating racial and ethnic harmony in the organizations. As people experience racial and ethnic tension, or perceive that the commitment to equity and positive intergroup relations is not complete, they need to have opportunities to learn how to deal with these problems.

People cannot be inoculated against prejudice. Given the differences in living conditions of various racial and ethnic groups, as well as the existence of discrimination throughout our society, improving intergroup relations is a challenge that requires ongoing work.

Principle 7: Strategies should be part of a continuing set of learning activities that are valued and incorporated throughout the school, college, or other organization.

In many settings, improved intergroup relations are the responsibility of a given officer or instructor, and the most common strategy is the episodic workshop or the “introductory” course—short or long. But there is little evidence~ that this strategy, in and of itself, is adequate. In some cases, the one-time workshop, course, or learning module that focuses on sources of conflict or on racial or ethnic differences can even reinforce negative predispositions.

The conventional wisdom among advocates of strategies to improve intergroup relations is that opportunities to learn should be infused throughout the curriculum or the tasks that make up the work of the organization involved. However, while this practice is desirable, it is difficult to achieve for at least two reasons. First, the level of commitment to the goal will vary within the school, program, or organization. Second, the expertise needed to adequately integrate experiences that promote positive intergroup relations is scarce. Thus, strategies to improve race relations need to include both highly focused activities and efforts to ensure that positive intergroup relations are pursued throughout the organization involved.

Principle 8: Strategies should examine similarities and differences across and within racial and ethnic groups, including differences related to social class, gender, and language.

Efforts to improve intergroup relations often overstate differences among and within racial and ethnic groups, and neglect beliefs and values that are shared across racial and ethnic “lines.” The search for generalizations that would promote sensitivity to differences and encourage positive responses to those differences often leads to oversimplification. An example can be found in data suggesting that some groups of Latinos are more likely than Anglos to prefer cooperative tasks. Here, of course, we cannot conclude that all Latinos are more cooperatively oriented than all Anglos. Indeed, there are big differences in the cultures of groups that are encompassed by terms such as Latino and Anglo.

It is understandable if strategies to improve intergroup relations do not deal with the full complexity of intraracial and intraethnic differences, but to ignore this complexity is to encourage another form of stereotyping. The focus on differences between racial and ethnic groups, and the failure to deal with differences within these groups, has the consequence of understating common human characteristics and directing attention away from the influence of gender, language, and social class on interpersonal relations.

In short, it is important to make clear that while racial and ethnic groups may have differences, they often have a lot in common. Making “the other” seem less different, strange, or exotic can encourage positive interactions and avoid stereotyping.

Principle 9: Strategies should recognize the value of bicultural and multicultural identities of individuals and groups, as well as the difficulties confronted by those who live in two or more cultures.

The concept of the “melting pot” is highly valued by many Americans, especially those of European descent. Persons of color and immigrants are often expected to assimilate into the “dominant white culture” and are resented when they hold on to cultural traditions or language. The effort to identify English as the official language of the United States is a manifestation of the value that many whites place on assimilation, as is the recent concern that multicultural education will lead to a breakdown of our national identity. In fact, the expectation of assimilation is a repudiation of the value that can be derived from the nation’s diversity and is actively resisted by many groups.

While some people insist that persons of color and certain ethnic backgrounds should abandon their racial and ethnic identities, others insist that individuals should choose a single cultural identity. Strategies to improve intergroup relations and to ensure policies and practices that require people to identify with one racial or ethnic group inadvertently communicate a lack of respect for persons with bicultural and multicultural identities. Similarly, when racial and ethnic groups put pressure on persons with complex identities to be “one or the other,” they discriminate against such individuals. Some would argue that persons who are bicultural or multicultural are a bridge to improved intergroup relations.

Principle 10: Strategies should expose the inaccuracies of myths that sustain stereotypes and prejudices.

Many stereotypes and sources of conflict are based on myths and misinformation. It is by confronting these myths directly that we undermine the justifications for prejudice. For example, assumptions many whites hold about the proportion of black males who commit violent crimes, the percentage of black college students who receive race-based scholarships, and the rates of alcohol and drug abuse among Latinos and African Americans are invariably wrong, and substantially so. Learning what people believe about persons of other races and ethnic groups, and being prepared to correct misconceptions, should be the responsibility of those who work to improve intergroup relations. At the same time, we cannot assume that correcting misconceptions, in and of itself, will be enough to change behavior.

Principle 11: Strategies should include the careful and thorough preparation of those who will implement the learning activities and provide opportunities for adapting methods to the particular setting.

It is obvious that the better trained a person is to foster learning that improves intergroup relations, the more effective that person will be. Preparation is especially important when the particular strategies focus on sources of conflict or involve confrontation—as in activities where participants are asked to express their “true feelings,’ to play the role of prejudiced persons, or to “get all of their frustrations on the table.”

Principle 1 emphasized the importance of relating strategies to the particular context in which the participants are involved on a continuing basis. The value of this principle depends on the abilities of those implementing the strategy to adapt the approach to fit the situation. Moreover, in some cases, those responsible for implementing a strategy are not fully committed and communicate that lack of commitment to participants. Consider, for example, those teachers who do not see the relationship between efforts to improve intergroup relations and the responsibility they have to teach stu dents about a given subject. Such teachers would tend to view intergroup relations strategies as marginal, if not downright distracting. Engaging those who must implement a strategy in program development, and identifying and addressing the sources of their lack of commitment, can contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the effort.

Principle 12: Strategies should be based on thorough analyses of the learning needs of participants and on continuing evaluation of outcomes, especially effects on behavior.

Discovering what people need to learn about intergroup relations is not an easy task, especially when the strategies are being implemented by an “expert” from outside the organizational unit involved. Many strategies to improve intergroup relations fail to make an adequate investment in diagnosing the problems that are particular to the setting involved. Not surprisingly, some will miss the mark, leading participants to view the strategies as superficial.

Evaluation is an invaluable source of program improvement. But many evaluation efforts are limited to post-event questionnaires about levels of satisfaction. Many programs receive positive evaluations, or so their advocates claim. But the real meaning of positive responses to satisfaction questions is unclear, given that negative responses might be seen as a lack of commitment to the goal of better intergroup relations and that responses may not reflect careful consideration. One consequence of such cursory evaluations is that the strategies used remain superficial and episodic, often relying on outside experts who have mastered techniques of presentation. What is needed are follow-up studies of individual and organizational change, even if such studies involve low-cost self-reports of changes in behavior and policies.

Principle 13: Strategies should recognize that lessons related to prejudice and its consequences for any particular racial or ethnic group may not transfer to other races or groups.

Prejudice is often specific to particular groups of people, even though an individual may be prejudiced against many different groups. Thus, teaching lessons focused on relations between any given two groups may not affect the prejudices being held against the people of a third group. Since most people recognize that racism is inconsistent with democratic values, it is often the case that prejudiced persons have developed what they think are reasonable justifications for prejudices and discriminatory behavior that are specific to particular groups.

Final Comments

These principles for designing and implementing effective strategies for improving intergroup relations and reducing discrimination are not guarantees. Weak implementation can undermine the best-designed strategies. Moreover, every strategy need not incorporate every principle in order to be effective. The CODA Consensus Panel examined numerous strategies it felt were worthy of implementation that incorporated only two or three of those principles. None of the programs reviewed met the criteria of all the principles.

The design principles developed by the CODA panel are meant to provide guidelines for action to those selecting or developing strategies to improve intergroup relations. They are also meant to focus discussion and research on the characteristics of program effectiveness. The panel invites critical analyses of its conclusions. Comments can be sent to CODA, The College of Education, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

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