Meta-analysis confirms that multicultural ideology is associated with less racial bias

A recent memo sent to U.S. government agencies from the Trump administration directs these agencies to suspend trainings related to racial sensitivity, labeling this training “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” This development highlights a broader issue regarding the different, and often conflicting, ways people think about and navigate increasing diversity in society. In other words, the memo taps into fundamental differences in diversity ideologies.

Diversity ideologies refer to the beliefs people hold regarding the importance of differences between groups in society, and the best way to navigate those differences. A significant amount of research has examined how these different ideologies are related to and impact racial/ethnic bias, with mixed results. A meta-analysis recently published in The Journal of Applied Psychology sought to make sense of these conflicting results. In it, psychologists Leslie, Bono, Kim, and Beaver examined the extent to which various diversity ideologies are related to racial/ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and support for diversity-related policies.

Diversity ideologies fall into two broad categories – identity-conscious and identity-blind. Identity-conscious ideologies argue that differences between groups are important and should be meaningfully acknowledged. The most common form is multiculturalism. In contrast, identity-blind ideologies assert that differences between groups are unimportant and it is best for intergroup relations to downplay and minimize these differences.

Three common identity-blind ideologies are colorblindness, meritocracy, and assimilation. Colorblindness adopts the position that one can best minimize group differences by seeking to ignore them (e.g., I don’t see color). Those that embrace the meritocracy ideology “see” color, but believe one should simply try to treat all groups equitably (e.g., I don’t care if you’re purple, green, or polka dot, I treat all people the same). The assimilation ideology also recognizes there are group differences, but seeks to reduce these differences by arguing that members of non-dominant groups should conform to and adopt the culture, practices, and beliefs of the majority group.

In their meta-analysis, Leslie and her colleagues examined how each of these diversity ideologies (colorblindness, meritocracy, assimilation, and multiculturalism) are related to racial/ethnic stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and support for diversity policies designed to provide non-dominant groups with additional resources and/or opportunities (e.g., affirmative action).

Since meta-analyses are essentially statistical summaries of previous research findings, their analysis included the results from 167 independent samples from 114 articles that examined diversity ideologies and racial/ethnic bias. The majority of these studies were correlational (77%), but about a quarter (23%) were experimental.

The colorblind and meritocracy identity-blind ideologies yielded mixed outcomes. Colorblindness was associated with less stereotyping, weakly associated with less prejudice, unrelated to discrimination, and associated with less support for diversity policies. Meritocracy was unrelated to both stereotyping and prejudice, but was related to lower discrimination and lower support for diversity policies.

Results were more internally consistent for the assimilation and multiculturalism ideologies. Assimilation was associated with greater stereotyping and lower support for diversity policies. It was also associated with increased prejudice and increased discrimination, but only among study participants that were members of majority groups. In contrast, multiculturalism was associated with lower stereotyping, lower prejudice, lower discrimination, and higher support for diversity policies. These relationships were especially strong among participants from majority groups.

Additional analyses directly compared the ideologies on their associated outcomes. Both colorblindness and multiculturalism were associated with lower prejudice, but this relationship was stronger for multiculturalism. Both meritocracy and multiculturalism were associated with lower discrimination, but this relationship was stronger for meritocracy. Finally, both colorblindness and multiculturalism were associated with lower stereotyping. This relationship was stronger for multiculturalism when the outcome was negative stereotypes, but the relationship was stronger for colorblindness when the outcome was neutral stereotypes.

In sum, multiculturalism showed the most consistent relationship with positive intergroup outcomes. It was most strongly associated with lower prejudice, lower negative stereotyping, and greater diversity policy support. Outcomes were more mixed for colorblindness and meritocracy, but out of all the ideologies, colorblindness was most strongly associated with lower neutral stereotyping, and meritocracy was most strongly associated with lower discrimination. Assimilation was the only ideology to consistently demonstrate associations with negative intergroup outcomes.

Several limitations should be kept in mind when interpreting these results. First, the vast majority of the measures used in the studies to measure stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and policy support were explicit rather than implicit. The results of this meta-analysis may not generalize to implicit forms of these biases, and explicit measures are more vulnerable to socially desirable responding. Also note that only one category of diversity policies was examined. Different results might be obtained if the diversity policies focused on enforcing nondiscrimination, as opposed to providing additional resources for non-dominant groups. Finally, the correlational design of the majority of the studies in the analysis limits our ability to determine the extent to which the various diversity ideologies actually cause the observed differences racial bias.

It is clear diversity and racial sensitivity training programs endorse a multicultural ideology – they explicitly acknowledge differences between racial/ethnic groups and assert these differences deserve our careful attention. Critics of multiculturalism often argue that its emphasis on differences exacerbates racial conflict and animosity, and this seems to be an underlying message in the recent memo. However, out of the ideologies examined in the meta-analysis, multiculturalism exhibited the greatest promise for addressing racial and ethnic bias. Of course, this is a moot point if one does not believe there is a significant racial bias problem in society. But that is a subject for another day.

The study, “On melting pots and salad bowls: A meta-analysis of the effects of identity-blind and identity-conscious diversity ideologies“, was authored by Lisa M. Leslie, Joyce E. Bono, Yeonka (Sophia) Kim, and Gregory R. Beaver.

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