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White Fears

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Now I can see why we need to protect Maddie and Connor from going to school with Black kids. Might make their parents feel a bit anxious, having to interaction with the other people!

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.

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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 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.

It’s just so much easier this way, amiright?

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