"We don’t know," Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim write today in in The Wall Street Journal ("Hard Truths About Race on Campus").
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations and universities spend on them each year, such programs “have never been evaluated with experimental methods,” as a comprehensive 2009 study in the Annual Review of Psychology concluded.
The evaluations that have been done are not encouraging. A major 2007 review of diversity training in corporations concluded that “on average, programs designed to reduce bias among managers responsible for hiring and promotion have not worked.” A review of diversity interventions published in 2014 in the journal Science noted that these programs “often induce ironic negative effects (such as reactance or backlash) by implying that participants are at fault for current diversity challenges.”
In the past few years, a new approach has gained attention and become a common demand of campus protesters: microaggression training. Microaggressions are defined as brief and commonplace daily indignities, whether intentional or not, that make people of color feel denigrated or insulted. The idea covers everything from asking someone where they are from to questioning the merits of affirmative action during a classroom discussion. [At the University of Oklahoma, some students are taught that the phrase "if you work hard enough, you will succeed" is a racist microaggression.]
But microaggression training is likely to backfire and increase racial tensions. The term itself encourages moralistic responses to actions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. Once something is labeled an act of aggression, it activates an oppressor-victim narrative, which calls out to members of the aggrieved group to rally around the victim. As the threshold for what counts as an offense falls ever lower, cross-racial interactions become more dangerous, and conflict increases.
Protesters also have demanded that microaggression training be coupled with anonymous reporting systems [predictably, OU has one of these] and “bias response teams.” Students are encouraged to report any instance when they witness or suffer a microaggression. It is the “see something, say something” mind-set, transferred from terrorism threats to conversational blunders and ambiguities.
But such systems make it far more important to keep track of everyone by race. How would your behavior change if anything you said could be misinterpreted, taken out of context and then reported—anonymously and with no verification—to a central authority with the power to punish you? Wouldn’t faculty and students of all races grow more anxious and guarded whenever students from other backgrounds were present? ...
So what should a college president do when faced with protesters’ demands? The essential first step is to take the long view and seek hard evidence about what will work, rather than spending vast sums of money to respond to the political pressures of the moment. ... Because the current evidence about diversity programs is so inconclusive, universities and their social-science faculties also should take the lead in designing experiments—true experiments, with control conditions and random assignment of students—to evaluate existing efforts and proposed new ones. Given the frequency with which well-intentioned programs backfire, no program should be implemented widely until it has first been rigorously tested. ...
The policies and programs that universities have pursued over the past half-century don’t seem to be working, at least as judged by the recent campus unrest, so reflexively expanding them probably isn’t the answer. The time may be right for a bold college president to propose a different approach, one based on the available evidence about what works and what doesn’t. That would be the best way to create a university community in which everyone feels welcome.