When Janet Schofield, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, entered college in Boston in the mid-1960s, the public schools there were just beginning to desegregate. Protesters stoned school buses and took to the streets. The experience sparked an interest in intergroup relations that endures today. "This whole issue of how people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds get along is a core issue in terms of societal peace, conflict and justice," Schofield says.
Her research explores the factors that influence relationships among people from different racial and ethnic groups. Much of this work focuses on the ways that school structures and policies affect relationships between white and African-American students. In a study that dates to 1980, she and her colleagues examined whether an ambiguously aggressive action — for example, one student bumping into another in a crowded hallway — would be viewed differently depending on the students' race. Schofield and graduate student Andrew Sagar found that when the person doing the bumping was African-American, the participants saw the action as meaner and more threatening than when the bumper was white. The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and "Dateline" featured the results in a special on race relations.
Follow-up research suggests a similar bias exists outside school hallways, Schofield says. For example, more recent studies have found that both college students and police officers are more likely to perceive an ambiguous object as a weapon if the person holding it is African-American rather than white. In a 2010 longitudinal study, Schofield examined whether white and African-American college freshmen who had roommates from the other group were more likely to develop friendships with people from different racial backgrounds than freshmen paired with someone of their own race. She and her colleagues found that they were more likely to do so, and that contact between the two groups during freshman year predicted the development of those friendships by the end of that year. Previous studies have found that friendships between group members reduce prejudice.
Schofield doesn't just present her work at conferences, she brings it to policymakers. In 1998, she led a daylong seminar for members of Congress on improving intergroup relations, and her research has been cited by two Supreme Court justices in a case involving race and schooling. "It's very important that the work become part of the public discourse," she says.
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