ERIC Identifier: ED414113
Publication Date: 1997-10-00
Author: Romo, Harriett
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Improving Ethnic and Racial Relations in the Schools. ERIC
In recent years, several factors have contributed to conflicts among students
of different backgrounds: Changes triggered by the civil rights movement, the
diversity of immigrants to the United States, and an increasing awareness of
ethnic identity. Tensions can exist among different racial and ethnic groups
despite the presence of those groups in the United States for generations. Group
conflicts can affect academic achievement as well as social relationships. Thus
this Digest discusses these tensions in our schools and suggests various ways to
RACIAL AND ETHNIC RELATIONS
Many patterns of racial and
ethnic group relations in our schools are based on the ways that members of a
given racial or ethnic group have been included or excluded within American
society. These patterns suggest that we cannot understand present day group
relations without considering slavery, the discrimination faced by Southern
European immigrants, the conquests of the Indians and Mexican Americans, the
relocations of Japanese citizens during World War II, and the experiences of
Cuban and Vietnamese refugees and other recent immigrants (McLemore & Romo,
1998). There are also conflicts within ethnic groups. For example, Hispanic
students may be prejudiced against or hold stereotypes of recent immigrants of
their own ethnic origins; tensions may also exist between recent Black
immigrants and U.S. born African Americans or between Asian citizens and Asian
Schools have historically helped include newcomers in American society and
continue to do so. However, previous research about intergroup relations in
schools is now 15 or 20 years old and it focused mostly on improving relations
between Whites and African Americans (Schofield, 1995). Today, racial and ethnic
relations are more complicated. Factors affecting the outcomes of intergroup
contacts can include ethnocentrism (the belief that one's own group is
superior), competition for resources and attention, and the relative power and
status of the groups involved.
INTERGROUP RELATIONS AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
has suggested that when minority group students think of making good grades and
doing school work as "acting White," they fail to achieve to the best of their
ability. Case studies by Romo and Falbo (1996) revealed Hispanic school
achievement was often discouraged by peers who teased friends about being
"schoolboys" or "nerds" if they completed homework or participated actively in
class. Stephan (1985) showed that anxiety about dealing with members of other
racial or ethnic groups is prevalent among students and can direct behavior in
ways that detract from academic achievement.
Researchers in multiethnic schools have found that students tend to
resegregate themselves. For instance, ethnic groups may define particular areas
of the school as "their territory" (Romo & Falbo, 1996). School policies may
also contribute to resegregation. When teachers and administrators segregate
students into honors, regular, vocational, and remedial classes that create
racially or ethnically homogeneous groups, the classes often magnify already
existing stereotypes and discrimination (Schofield, 1995).
IDENTITY FUNCTIONS OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC CONFLICTS
ethnic or racial identities no longer serve as a basis for group cohesion, they
may continue to make individuals feel special and part of a community (Waters,
1990). Ethnic group membership may also exclude members of certain groups from
friendship cliques, social activities, or may limit their status and popularity.
This can lead to racial and ethnic conflicts, which can help establish an
alternative sense of identity within the school. Often minority students are
assigned inferior status in the formal school structure (i.e., they are tracked
into lower level courses or groups). They may also experience social segregation
that excludes them from meaningful interactions with members of the dominant
group or minority groups different from their own.
Additionally, ethnic boundaries may be more or less important depending on
the school context, income and age of the student, and social and economic
conditions in the larger society. The divisions between "them" and "us" may
change when some groups become more numerous or when "old-timers" and
"newcomers" compete. Conflicts make ethnic group boundaries more distinct and
may increase each group's unity (Olsen, 1997).
Group conflicts may also create leadership roles for students. For example,
when groups fight, the best fighters may gain in peer status. As a result of the
conflicts, group members may feel less alienated. The potential for conflict
increases as students perceive benefits of racial and ethnic group membership,
feeling like they belong to a group of loyal friends.
Consequently, schools must make efforts to prevent racial and ethnic clashes
in order to focus on academics. Recognizing common values (all students want to
feel that they belong) and differential power (some groups "belong" more than
others) is essential in order to maintain stability and positive relationships
in multiethnic classrooms. Interventions to reduce prejudice and discrimination
are also essential. The next section offers strategies for doing this.
REDUCING PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION
There are several
approaches to reducing discrimination (McLemore & Romo, 1998), including
educational approaches that combat stereotypes and racial hatreds; a vicarious
approach using books and films that present positive portrayals of oppressed
peoples; and strategies that bring students of different backgrounds together.
These approaches would vary depending on the age of students.
An educational approach. Exposing students and teachers to accurate
information about other groups allows them to learn about intergroup
similarities and differences. When individuals have accurate information, they
are less likely to accept stereotypes and to be prejudiced (Hewstone &
Brown, 1986; Sue, 1995). As students and educators gain knowledge about other
groups and their histories, they will be more likely to respect members of those
groups and cooperate with them. Drawing attention to the processes of
discrimination, engaging actively in team building, and consulting continuously
with students all help develop a new culture of tolerance and understanding
A vicarious experience approach. Instead of teaching facts to students about
different groups, a program of intergroup education may include films, plays,
biographies, novels, and other ways of presenting members of all groups in a
respectful way. Exposure to such materials will help students recognize the
commonalities of all groups and reduce their tendency to draw sharp boundaries
between "them" and "us." The effectiveness of a vicarious experience approach
depends on how the message of tolerance is presented. Poor presentations, in
which the presenter does not know the material well, uses biased materials, or
has little rapport with the audience, may actually increase prejudices instead
of reducing them. (See "Teaching Tolerance," a magazine provided to schools at
no charge. For more information contact Teaching Tolerance, 400 Washington Ave.,
Montgomery, AL 36104.)
Intergroup contacts. One way of improving intergroup relations is having
students participate in joint activities. When people do things together they
have opportunities to judge people on their own merits rather than on
stereotypes. These contacts are most successful if the people involved are of
equal social status, are working cooperatively on something, if their activity
is supported by people in positions of authority, and if the activity involves a
high level of intimacy (McLemore & Romo, 1998). If the activities are
organized inappropriately, students involved in interethnic programs may become
more prejudiced. Also key are parent, teacher, and peer support for the
Relationships among groups are also
affected by school structure and policies. For example, Baker (1995) explored
how institutionalized racism (in which the schools and other basic institutions
operate in ways that intentionally or unintentionally deny opportunities to
minority students) sustains negative images of particular groups and maintains
their subordinate status. Baker concluded that integrated schools focused more
on learning than schools in a state of strain and conflict. Haley (1994) also
found, for example, that although strong ethnic boundaries separate students,
systematic integration and small class size helped students cross ethnic
boundaries and achieve higher graduation rates.
Promoting positive and intergroup relations. Slavin (1995) found that in
traditionally organized schools, interaction between students of different
ethnicities was typically superficial and often competitive. With the exception
of sports, students had few positive contacts with members of different groups
in or outside of school. In addition, Slavin demonstrated that cooperative
learning methods can create thoughtful, equitable interactions needed to promote
positive racial attitudes. In cooperative learning, students of different races
and ethnicities work together in groups, which receive rewards, recognition, or
evaluation based on how much they can improve each member's academic
performance. Cooperative learning provides daily opportunities for intense
interpersonal contact among students from different backgrounds and is
structured to give each student an opportunity to contribute. Slavin found that
when correctly used, cooperative learning results in intergroup friendships as
well as improved general intergroup attitudes. Cooperative learning methods also
had positive effects on achievement, particularly for Latino and Black students.
Ethnicity and race are important ways that
students define themselves in the schools. Promoting positive inter- and
intragroup relationships can further students' willingness to learn, promote
academic achievement, and help youth prepare for successful lives in the larger
community and world of work.
Baker, R. (1995). Los dos mundos: Rural Mexican
Americans, another America. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 385 417)
Haley, B. (1994). Heterogeneity in rural California and the example of
Shandon. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological
Society, August 11-14, 1994, Portland, OR. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 375 990)
Hewstone, M., & Brown, R., eds. (1986). Contact and conflict in
intergroup encounters. New York: Blackwell.
McLemore, S. D., & Romo, H. D. (1998). Racial and ethnic relations in
America, 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Ogbu, J. (1990). Minority education in comparative perspective. Journal of
Negro Education 59(1), p. 45-55.
Olsen, L. (1997). Made in America: Immigrant students in our public schools.
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Romo, H. D., & Falbo, T. (1996). Latino high school graduation: Defying
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