Do Affinity Groups Create More Racial Tension on Campus?

For years, predominantly White institutions have worked to etch out a space where students of color could assemble to discuss their issues and identify mentors. And for years, this space has come in the form ethnic-themed student organizations, cultural centers, fraternities, sororities and, in some cases, ethnic-themed dormitories.

And while ethnic-oriented student organizations on PWIs have been known to positively impact minority retention and graduation rates, these groups can also foster greater racial tension among racial groups and stifle social integration, says Dr. James Sidanius, a professor of psychology and African American studies at Harvard University, and his team of researchers in their book, “The Diversity Challenge: Social Identity and Intergroup Relations on the College Campus.”

“Diversity Challenge” is the largest and most comprehensive study to date on college campus diversity, the authors contend. The researchers followed 2,000 University of California, Los Angeles students for five years to see how diversity affects identities, sociopolitical attitudes, and group conflicts over time.

“Data from our study showed pretty conclusively that intergroup contact reduces ethnic tension and increases in friendship across ethnic lines,” says Sidanius. “Universities should do everything in their power to increase the level of contact between different ethnicities. They should make roommate assignments random and fight against the natural tendency for students to segregate themselves.”

Racial prejudice, in general, decreases with exposure to an ethnically diverse college environment, the report reveals. Students who were randomly assigned to a roommate of a different ethnicity developed more favorable attitudes toward students of different backgrounds, and the same associations held for friendship and dating patterns.

On the contrary, students who interacted mainly with others of similar backgrounds were more likely to exhibit bias toward others and perceive discrimination against their group.

“Ethnically oriented, student-based organizations such as the Afro-American Studies Association or the Latin American Student Association create more [racial] tension,” Sidanius says. “Once students joined these organizations, it increased their own ethnic identification and gave students the feeling that they were being ethnically victimized by other student groups.”

Dr. Jarvis Sulcer, director of education at the Level Playing Field Institute, an entity devoted to removing barriers to fairness in higher education and the workplace, believes that ethnic-themed student organizations are crucial to higher education and that social integration emerges from a willingness among students to explore their differences. “The ethnic-specific groups created on predominantly White campuses are necessary to combat the sense of isolation that many [minority] students feel,” Sulcer says.

Sulcer, a graduate of Southern University, a historically Black institution in Louisiana, and Cornell University, understands first hand the significance of student organizations that cater to minority students. “At Cornell, I was the only one in many of my classes. Being able to identify with a group of students who look like me, talk like me and can relate to what I am feeling is very supportive,” Sulcer says, adding that he was one of few Black students participating in a Chinese Korean Bible study.

Cornell University, where Sulcer attended graduate school, is home to an African-American themed-dormitory and a campus house celebrating Native American heritage. Darin Jones, a Black student attending Cornell, told Diverse in December, “This dorm is Cornell’s best retention tool for Blacks. I couldn’t achieve as much academically, if I was not in a place where I felt so easily accepted. Minorities need a space on campus that is their own.”

One surprise to emerge from the “Diversity Challenge” report was the development of sociopolitical attitudes. By-in-large, college students leave the university with the same social and political view that they entered with. “There is some movement toward the liberal end of the continuum by the time they leave schools, but that shift is a fairly mild effect,” Sidanius says.

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