African American Teenagers More Supportive of Affirmative Action, School Desegregation Than White Youth, Study Finds

March 1, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — African American teenagers are significantly more supportive than whites of affirmative action and school desegregation, according to a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin.

Rebecca Bigler, professor of psychology and director of the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at The University of Texas at Austin, and Julie Milligan Hughes, a developmental psychologist at the College of New Jersey, published their findings in the March issue of Developmental Psychology.

The study reveals differences of opinion within both racial groups on the use of race-conscious policies to promote racial equality. Among both African Americans and whites, the researchers found a strong connection between the respondents' disapproval of race-conscious policies and the belief that racial inequalities have disappeared in the United States.

The researchers theorize that adolescence may be an especially significant stage of cognitive development when racial attitudes begin to take shape. During this critical stage of development, parents need to have direct conversations about race and racism with their teenagers to increase their understanding of racial disparities in the United States, Bigler said.

"The most common mistake — especially with white parents — is they want their children to believe we live in a society where race doesn't matter, and they believe that being 'color mute' will achieve this goal," Bigler said. "Direct conversations at home and in the classroom about prejudice and discrimination can significantly improve children's attitudes about race."

As part of the study, the psychologists surveyed 210 high school students between the ages of 14 and 17 about their views on affirmative action and school desegregation. In a series of studies, African American and white adolescents from diverse economic backgrounds answered questions about their knowledge of the history of racism and perceptions of racial discrimination. They also completed Implicit Association Tests (IAT), in which they reported their reactions to racial groups by associating positive and negative words with images of African American and white faces.

According to the findings:

  • By age 16, African Americans supported school desegregation and affirmative action programs more strongly than whites.
  • Overall, whites scored higher than African Americans on a short quiz about racism in U.S. history, but were less likely than African Americans to believe that racial inequalities persist.
  • African American respondents who knew more about historical racism were more supportive of an affirmative action policy.
  • IAT scores reflecting racially biased attitudes were significantly higher among whites than African Americans.
  • Whites with unfavorable implicit or unconscious perceptions of African Americans were more likely than their peers to view race-conscious social policies negatively. This finding suggests the respondents' negative views of African Americans led them to view racial integration as an unimportant goal, Bigler said.
  • Whites who perceived greater racial disparities in contemporary society — and attributed those disparities to racism — were more supportive of both types of programs than their peers.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Rebecca Bigler, professor, Department of Psychology and Center for Women's and Gender Studies, 512-471-9917.