White Americans generally believe that members of minority groups should assimilate into the majority culture, rather than maintaining a distinct identity. That view changes, however, when they find themselves in a setting where they're the ones in the minority.
That's one of the findings in a new study by researchers at the University of Delaware and other institutions, which was published in the Association for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in the field of psychology.
The lead author, UD psychology doctoral student Eric Hehman, and his colleagues analyzed questionnaires that were completed by students nationally and also at two Delaware universities. The Delaware institutions were key to the study because the racial makeups of their student bodies are almost mirror images of each other: UD is 85 percent white, and Delaware State University (DSU) is 75 percent African American.
"People tend to believe that blacks prefer pluralism [where minority groups maintain their culture while living cooperatively in the mainstream society] and whites prefer assimilation [where minorities drop their cultural identities and become more like the majority]," Hehman said. The results of this new research, however, show a more complicated picture.
Instead of whites and blacks having consistent opinions in all situations, the study indicates that their views change depending on circumstances. "The role the group occupies in a particular environment influences its preferences," Hehman said.
The research found that, nationally, white Americans do favor assimilation, and African Americans prefer pluralism. Those views also were found at UD, where the white majority tended to want minority groups to assimilate, while black students preferred pluralism.
But at DSU, with black students as the majority, those students favored assimilation. The results for white DSU students weren't as clear-cut, but—just like their black counterparts—they approved of pluralism more when they were in the minority than when they were in the majority. Hehman said the results were not surprising because they show that "both groups seek to enhance their collective group identities" in a particular situation.
For those in the majority, he said, "The feeling is that the other group can come join us and give up their values. That preference benefits the majority by maintaining the status quo with no cost to them." At the same time, "The minority wants to maintain its … cultural identity," he said. "It's threatening when the majority wants to assimilate them."
Understanding the preferences, feelings and motivations of both groups could help establish better policies in a multicultural society, he said.
About the research team
The study, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, was conducted by Hehman, Samuel L. Gaertner, professor of psychology, and David C. Wilson, associate professor of political science and international relations, all at UD; John F. Dovidio, professor of psychology at Yale University, who earned his doctorate at UD in 1977; Eric W. Mania of Quinsigamond Community College; Rita Guerra of Lisbon University Institute; and Brian M. Friel of Delaware State University.
Hehman has conducted previous research exploring what racial and other characteristics of a person cause others to remember or forget having seen his face before. Another study found that racial prejudice among some white Americans—even if unintentional—influences their views of President Barack Obama's "Americanism" and their assessment of how well he is performing in office.
Hehman, whose adviser is Gaertner, won national awards for journal articles he published about both previous research projects.