By Farrell, Charles S.
Black Issues in Higher Education , Vol. 13, No. 16
A new study that suggests racism within small groups
appears to affect men more than women may have
Jury verdicts could be swayed, military strategies
changed, business decisions influenced because of the
racial composition of a group, according to Dr. Larry E.
Davis, one of the authors of the study and a professor of
social work and psychology at the George Warren Brown
School of Social Work at Washington University in St.
"While many people might consider that an equal
number of Black males and an equal number of white
males would be an ideal composition when working on a
project, our study shows that that might be the worst
thing to do, setting up all kinds of conflict," Davis said.
Interestingly, all-women work groups were less
affected by the racial balance of the group, leading Davis
to conclude that gender is a factor in racism.
Co-authored by Dr. Michael J. Strube, a professor of
psychology in arts and sciences at Washington
University, the research is based on experiments with 120
undergraduate college students. The students were
assigned to four-person, same-sex groups with varying
racial compositions -- one Black and three whites (25
percent), two Blacks and two whites (50 percent), and
three Blacks and one white (75 percent). Each group was
then given a decision-making task to perform.
Davis and Strube later interviewed individual
members of the groups to assess the experience. The
researchers were interested in satisfaction with group
performance, confidence in group decisions, and
willingness to work with the group in the future. The
study showed that men had the most difficulty working
in groups with equal numbers of Black and whites, while
women in the same situation were able to reach a
resolution without negative conflict.
Threatening Majority Status
Davis said the study supports other research on race
relations that suggests that white males react negatively
when their majority status is threatened.
Studies of housing and school integration have shown
that white males reach an "uncomfortable" level when
Black representation reaches about 30 percent, a level he
called "the tipping point."
"In our model, conflict occurs most at the 50-50
racial split," Davis said. "This is where the highest
conflict and most hostility came."
He theorized that this may be because in the 50-50
group there is a struggle for dominance, while in the other
groups, the majority dominated, whether it was Black or
When Blacks are in the minority in the group,
conflict is avoided because Blacks are accustomed to
being outnumbered, Davis said, so their racial tolerance
is higher. When Blacks are in the majority in the groups,
they may feel empowered by their numbers, he
So why don't women fit the same pattern when
groups are formed along racial lines?
"It says to us that women -- groups of Black and
white women -- have a higher probability of interacting
with less conflict," Davis said. "Women, for whatever
reason, seem to be less conflict-prone and, as a
consequence, race was less important."
"It could be that control and power are not as
important in female groups, perhaps because
important women traditionally are more conditioned to
be accommodating in social situations," said Strube in a
written description of the study.
So, is it gender or race that makes Black men and
white men more likely to be in conflict? …