A new study that suggests racism within small groups appears to affect men more than women may have immense implications.
Jury verdicts could be swayed, military strategies changed, business decisions influenced because of the racial composition of a group, according to Dr. Larry E. Davis, one of the authors of the study and a professor of social work and psychology at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
“While many people might consider that an equal number of Black males and an equal number of white males would be an ideal composition when working on a project, our study shows that that might be the worst thing to do, setting up all kinds of conflict,” Davis said. Interestingly, all-women work groups were less affected by the racial balance of the group, leading Davis to conclude that gender is a factor in racism.
Co-authored by Dr. Michael J. Strube, a professor of psychology in arts and sciences at Washington University, the research is based on experiments with 120 undergraduate college students. The students were assigned to four-person, same-sex groups with varying racial compositions — one Black and three whites (25 percent), two Blacks and two whites (50 percent), and three Blacks and one white (75 percent). Each group was then given a decision-making task to perform.
Davis and Strube later interviewed individual members of the groups to assess the experience. The researchers were interested in satisfaction with group performance, confidence in group decisions, and willingness to work with the group in the future. The study showed that men had the most difficulty working in groups with equal numbers of Black and whites, while women in the same situation were able to reach a resolution without negative conflict.
Threatening Majority Status
Davis said the study supports other research on race relations that suggests that white males react negatively when their majority status is threatened. Studies of housing and school integration have shown that white males reach an “uncomfortable” level when Black representation reaches about 30 percent, a level he called “the tipping point.”
“In our model, conflict occurs most at the 50-50 racial split,” Davis said. “This is where the highest conflict and most hostility came.” He theorized that this may be because in the 50-50 group there is a struggle for dominance, while in the other groups, the majority dominated, whether it was Black or white.
When Blacks are in the minority in the group, conflict is avoided because Blacks are accustomed to being outnumbered, Davis said, so their racial tolerance is higher. When Blacks are in the majority in the groups, they may feel empowered by their numbers, he explained.
So why don’t women fit the same pattern when groups are formed along racial lines? “It says to us that women — groups of Black and white women — have a higher probability of interacting with less conflict,” Davis said. “Women, for whatever reason, seem to be less conflict-prone and, as a consequence, race was less important.”
“It could be that control and power are not as important in female groups, perhaps because important women traditionally are more conditioned to be accommodating in social situations,” said Strube in a written description of the study.
So, is it gender or race that makes Black men and white men more likely to be in conflict? Or is it a combination of the two, as Davis concludes? “I think it is part of the human condition that men are more aggressive,” he said. “But there are also psychological and historical reasons that are both compelling. The history of Black oppression, particularly of the Black male, certainly has had a dramatic and lasting impact on race relations in this country. Plus, we all tend to be more comfortable with populations we spend more time with.”
As America becomes more racially and culturally diverse, however, more intermingling is inevitable, Davis said. Whether that leads to more racial conflict remains to be seen.
“Males need to be hypersensitive to the point that if we put equal numbers together,… we have a good chance of some kind of group conflict occurring,” he said.
Athletes Setting an Example
Davis then speculated that as minority numbers increase, “people could themselves come to accept others. As the numbers go up, maybe people will come to say it is no big deal.”
As an example, he cited the fact that the majority of the players in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association are Black. Observing that there is little confrontation among players, Davis concluded that white players have accepted their minority status and have acquired higher racial tolerance than otherwise — “or they couldn’t survive.”
Pointing to the Chicago Bulls, Davis noted that the mostly Black team has a white coach who has piloted the teams to numerous world championships. “Phil Jackson has to be a hip white dude,” Davis said.
Davis hopes to expand his study to include larger groups — and groups that include men and women of both races. By studying how various racial and gender composition affect group decisions, atmosphere, satisfaction, success, and enjoyment, the researchers hope to understand which combinations produce the most effective group.
“I would love to be able to do this with the Army,” Davis said. “I think we could make a very compelling argument about the effectiveness of groups, given the existing racial composition there.”
Reaction to the study has been varied, with most people acknowledging that more research must be done. Nevertheless, the existing study is intriguing. Looking for Explanations And Resolutions Dr. Frederick Phillips, president of the Association of Black Psychologists, said that the study is consistent with earlier studies that show that “it takes a smaller number of Blacks to tilt the power relationship inside small groups. I am not surprised that men view relationships in terms of power and control.
That is why white men are so vicious in subjugating African men and their manhood. In some ways, this is an inverse reaction and relationship of inferiority of white males, relative to African men.”
That experience has led to Black men having a shorter fuse in dealing with white men. “In the back of our minds, we know they’re out to get us. That is historical and omnipresent. It is everywhere, so it is a very combustible relationship,” On the other hand, Black women have assumed more of a position of power with their counterparts in the white community, Phillips said.
He agrees with Davis that Blacks have learned to adjust to being in a minority situation, suppressing feelings and trying to get along. Therefore, they seek resolutions when they are in the minority in small groups.
Conversely, when Blacks are in the majority in those groups, “They have learned to take care of their white brethren in a way, and not overstep and abuse. When they are more equal, when there is an equal playing field, then natural assertiveness comes to the fore.”
And how do you resolve the problem? “What you have to look at is what makes white males feel inadequate and lead to aberrations on their part. What in their psyche leads to this behavior of inferiority and insecurity and inequality where they turn to violence and suspicion of us and causes them to flee neighborhoods and flee schools and flee jobs.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page agrees with the assessments about men raised in the study. “I think that on the whole, women tend to be more cooperation oriented, while men tend to be more competitive,” said Page, who has written extensively on race in America.He suspects that racism does play a part in group dynamics, “But my inclination is go with the simplest explanation. If it is true that racial conflict tends to show up between men in the workplace, that is consistent with women being more option oriented. Women tend to go into situations looking for areas of agreement and resolution.”
Page used, as an example, car-buying studies. Women who buy cars are looking for a pleasant solution for everyone, those studies suggest, while men look for the best price.
But Page said he hoped the study didn’t send people trying to find a magic formula for racial composition of groups, “because you are really talking about quotas now. What is important is a level playing field for everybody. “It is not going to be as simple as the numbers,” Page continued. “When everything is reduced to numbers you are asking for trouble. Blacks and whites need to learn more about each other.”
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