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  • Mitchell R. Campbell

Targeting DEI solutions based on how discrimination shows up

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) solutions often make a number of assumptions about the problems of intergroup relations that exist in a given setting. One of these assumptions concerns what I call the nature of prejudice and discrimination. The traditional argument made in out-of-the-box diversity trainings is that the large majority of people hold implicit biases, which cause them to behave in subtly biased ways. Let’s refer to this as the “dispersed discrimination account,” as it holds that discriminatory behaviors are dispersed among actors.

My advisor (Markus Brauer) and I wondered whether this assumption actually holds true universally. We could imagine a different possibility: that an explicitly biased minority of people are responsible for the lion’s share of the discrimination that occurs. This idea is in line with the Pareto Principle, which states that, in many situations, the majority of the effects are caused by a minority of the causes. For example, litter present along a highway is likely caused by a handful of “litter bugs” frequently throwing trash out the window, not by the majority of drivers occasionally throwing out a single item. For the discrimination domain, let’s call this the “concentrated discrimination account,” as it holds that discriminatory behaviors are concentrated in a smaller subset of actors.

A vital point here is that the objective amount of discrimination that occurs in both cases is the same: members of marginalized social groups frequently experience unequal treatment, derogation, harassment, and other forms of discrimination. The difference between the two accounts ultimately concerns who is to blame for the discrimination, which I argue has big implications for how we design DEI solutions.

The out-of-the-box trainings I mentioned before, based on the dispersed discrimination account, usually focus on getting people to recognize their biases and reduce the impact their biases have on their behaviors. If it is the case that most people in a given setting aren’t behaving in biased ways, though, such a training isn’t particularly useful for improving intergroup relations there. In such a setting, it would be much more useful to get people to behave in actively inclusive (i.e., anti-racist) ways, make clear the social norm that discrimination is unacceptable, and provide tools for identifying systemic sources of racism and injustice in that context and working to dismantle them.

Our recommendation to researchers and practitioners alike, then, is to work to better understand the nature of prejudice and discrimination in the context of interest. This work is a vital aspect of the social marketing approach to developing DEI solutions we proposed in a recent Perspectives article.

In a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we conducted a series of unobtrusive field experiments and surveys that helped us better understand the nature of prejudice and discrimination in the setting we work in the most: our university. In our field experiments, research assistants representing different social backgrounds asked for directions, applied to jobs on campus, rode the campus bus, dropped items in an elevator, etc. These subtle behaviors are exactly those that would be predicted to be most affected by implicit biases. We were then able to record whether our research assistants were treated differently based on their social group membership. The evidence we accumulated indicated that members of marginalized social groups were reliably treated less well by a small minority of the individuals we observed, suggesting the concentrated discrimination account, rather than the dispersed account, better explains how discrimination manifests at our university. The survey data we acquired also supported this conclusion: one notable finding was that the large majority of students, regardless of their social background, reported that most of their peers behave in inclusive ways and only a small minority actively engage in discrimination.

It is important to reiterate here that our results in no way suggest that prejudice or discrimination aren’t as big of an issue as we assumed: they absolutely are. The data we collected through our studies instead suggest we change the way we go about improving intergroup relations on our campus. Telling first year students they are likely behaving in biased ways outside their awareness is likely to be counterproductive: aside from being untrue based on our data, this message often has the effect of discouraging them from interacting across group boundaries for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. We might instead focus on imparting the message to these students that their peers from marginalized backgrounds often experience harassment and discrimination, and it is incumbent on all of us to engage in more actively inclusive, anti-racist behaviors to improve our campus climate. It should be made clear to them that discrimination is unacceptable, and they should be taught how to confront it when they see it occurring. Finally, they can be taught how structural and systemic forms of bias can perpetuate inequality even absent discriminatory behaviors.

I believe that our best chance of improving intergroup relations and reducing prejudice and discrimination relies on targeting our solutions to match the problems that exist in a given context. I don’t expect the concentrated discrimination account to hold in every context, and that’s exactly the point. The treatments we prescribe should match the maladies we diagnose. One diagnostic tool we should use to identify these maladies is examining the nature of prejudice and discrimination: what kinds of behaviors and attitudes show up most frequently and who expresses them. Arming ourselves with this information can help us create targeted DEI solutions that have the best chance of improving the experiences and well-being of individuals belonging to marginalized groups.

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