by Jay Fitzgerald
White people often feel anxious about interacting with non-Whites, and they go out of their way to erect barriers to reduce contact with minorities, according to new research.
When routinely making choices about where to live, work, socialize, and send children to school, the mere anticipation of interacting with racial minorities motivates White people to self-segregate, says Harvard Business School professor Jon M. Jachimowicz. And White people often attempt to erect barriers—even seemingly innocuous ones like stricter dress codes at golf and tennis clubs—to isolate themselves from minorities, according to research that involved surveying hundreds of people and studying thousands of datasets at government and social organizations.
This pattern can “fuel a self-perpetuating cycle of segregation,” which may not only impede better intergroup relations, but also restricts minorities from accessing valuable resources primarily controlled by White people, according to the study, Structuring Local Environments to Avoid Diversity: Anxiety Drives Whites’ Geographical and Institutional Self-Segregation Preferences, which will appear in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“It’s not that Whites always do this—but that when given the power and the opportunity, they may seek ways to reduce the racial diversity in the spaces they inhabit to lessen contact with racial minorities,” says Jachimowicz, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at HBS.
Jachimowicz co-authored the research with Eric Anicich, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business; Merrick Osborne, a doctoral student at USC Marshall; and L. Taylor Phillips, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Challenging segregation at work and home
The study comes at a time when cries for racial justice have grown in the United States, and Jachimowicz says it should be a “call to action” for people and organizations to make substantive personal and professional changes to foster more positive connections among racial groups—interactions that studies have shown have the potential to reduce biased behaviors.
“AWARENESS ALONE IS NOT GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD. IT’S ABOUT HOW PEOPLE CAN MAKE REAL CHANGES TO STRUCTURE.”
For business leaders grappling with improving racial equity in the workplace, important changes need to go beyond actively recruiting, hiring, and promoting more minority employees—and toward implementing workplace policies that challenge the self-segregation of White employees, which may occur if left unchecked, the researchers say. This segregation may not only create fractures in an organization’s culture, but may also disadvantage minority employees in performance evaluations and promotion decisions, given that senior decision-makers remain predominantly White, Jachimowicz says.
“Awareness alone is not going to change the world,” he says. “It’s about how people can make real changes to structures.”
White people prefer to spend time with Whites
The US is becoming more racially diverse, with some studies predicting the country will be “minority White” by 2045. Despite these demographic shifts, recent research suggests that most Americans believe racial tensions have worsened in recent years. The research team set out to investigate whether White people construct and maintain barriers in their lives to reduce intergroup contact.
In one study, the team surveyed 170 White people about how they would structure their lives in a fictional, diverse city. They were allowed to customize different aspects of the city layout based on their personal preferences, such as where to locate homes and workplaces. And they were presented with the demographics of the fictional city, including the age, gender, and race of its residents.
“THE MORE TIME THEY EXPECT TO SPEND AT A LANDMARK, THE MORE THEY CONCENTRATE OTHER WHITES AROUND THAT LANDMARK.”
The researchers found that White participants indicated a distinct preference for bringing other White residents closer to areas of the city where they would spend more time. “The more time they expect to spend at a landmark, the more they concentrate other Whites around that landmark,” the study says.
In a similar fictional-city study, White survey participants were asked to imagine living in a new city and assessed their preferred geographical distribution of residents by race.
The results were clear: When given the opportunity to do so, White people preferred to design their environments in ways that maximized their exposure to other White people and minimized their contact with non-Whites. The research team focused specifically on the behaviors of White people and did not study the preferences of non-Whites.
Triangulating tennis, golf, and White anxiety
The team then moved from fictional cities to hard numbers—specifically, data about institutions historically controlled by White people: tennis clubs and golf courses. The researchers purchased data related to thousands of tennis and golf clubs across the country and matched the data with demographic information based on ZIP codes.
They found that clubs located near more racially diversely populated areas tended to be private—and they had more barriers to entry, such as high greens fees and dress codes—than clubs in less diverse areas. The not-so-subtle message to non-Whites, says Jachimowicz: You are not welcome here.
“WHAT’S SURPRISING ABOUT OUR FINDINGS IS THAT IT’S NOT SURPRISING?”
A fifth and final study sought to uncover the motives for this self-segregation. The research team showed hundreds of survey participants maps of a fictional city with varying degrees of racial diversity and segregation near places considered relevant to participants’ imagined lives, such as homes, offices, banks, shopping malls, libraries, country clubs, and schools.
In measuring participants’ responses to various imaginary scenarios, the research team found that White participants’ wariness about living near people of different backgrounds drove them to structure their lives to reduce incidental intergroup contact.
Are White people segregating consciously?
This anxiety-driven self-segregation can be seen across America in various towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, school systems, social gatherings, and even tiny enclaves of White people in overwhelmingly diverse cities, Jachimowicz says.
“What’s surprising about our findings is that it’s not surprising,” says Jachimowicz.
The results raise an uncomfortable question: Are the self-segregating behaviors exhibited by many White Americans the result of conscious or unconscious racist thoughts?
“To me, that’s a less important question,” says Jachimowicz. “I think that what’s more important is the outcome. Our research shows that, left to their own devices, many White people create barriers to limit intergroup contact. The fact is that we’re all doing this one way or the other, and we’re all responsible for the outcome. As a result, we all need to make changes in our lives.”