Cover Story

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, many hoped--and believed--that integrating schools and workplaces would put the country on a fast road to racial equality.

But it hasn't turned out to be so simple, said psychologist Claude Steele, PhD, in a speech at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Biennial Convention. He presented research showing that the contingencies tied to people's identities--negative stereotypes, subordinated status and differential treatment, for example--continue to hold back minorities, even in seemingly well-integrated settings.

"It's one thing to numerically integrate a setting; it's another thing to achieve genuine social integration in the setting," he said. "The focus now is achieving settings in which people of diverse identities can feel enough comfort and trust to flourish."

Indeed, according to his theory of identity contingencies, true integration requires in-depth social understanding. This theory holds that every person has multiple characteristics of possible social significance, such as age, race, gender and sexual orientation. What elevates a characteristic to a social identity that shapes a person's psychology, explained Steele, are the treatments, judgments, arrangements, advantages and disadvantages the person confronts in various settings because of that characteristic.

Threat--a sense of being under attack based on an identity--is an especially powerful contingency that's capable of making an identity highly salient to a person, Steele noted. And being an "identity minority" in a setting is a situational cue that can make one feel such threat, he said.

"It's very difficult to make someone feel comfortable in an environment where they're in a tiny minority," he explained. "It becomes something that is difficult to ignore; it's always close to consciousness."

Whether it's being the oldest or being an ethnic minority, status as the exception can hinder a person's engagement with a setting's job or academic tasks, Steele said. In schools, for example, such disengagement could obviously impair a student's academic performance. If students feel they are under threat for their identity, they will always be on guard, preventing them from functioning at their highest cognitive levels or fully collaborating in groups.

Steele also presented evidence of the identity threat that whites can feel in interracial interactions. He shared the results of a study he conducted with psychologists Phil Goff, PhD, of Stanford University, and Paul Davies, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, in which white students seated themselves farther away from black students when they expected to converse about racial issues, most likely due to concern they'd be seen as racist--the threatening contingency attached to their identities in that situation, Steele said. Played out in school settings, this contingency could influence white teachers of black students in similar ways, Steele added.

So, said Steele, 50 years after America integrated its schools, it still faces barriers.

"Identity threat is one of them," he said. "It is intrinsic to most diverse settings, and it's the default state of affairs unless something is done to reduce it."

Therefore, Steele argued, for integrated classrooms and workplaces to truly make all people feel they can flourish, they must first focus on achieving a sense of identity safety. Steele also cautioned, though, that developing identity safety must be done carefully to maximize people's buy-in.

"Identity safety is best established though implicit efforts at establishing the contributive value of social identities as a norm in a setting," he said.