Sedlacek, W. E. (1995). Using research to reduce racism at a university. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 33, 131-140

Using Research to Reduce Racism at a University

William E. Sedlacek

University of Maryland at College Park


Research conducted over a 25 year period concerning the needs and problems of African-American students at a large predominantly White university was used to defend a lawsuit against that university. Whether the use of this research indicated that the university had developed its racial self-concept to the point of being ready for improved multicultural programming was discussed in terms of several models for understanding racism.

There are many approaches to eliminating racism (e.g., Helms, 1992). One often forgotten by counseling and student affairs professionals is advocacy based upon research. Research is often seen as the province of non-humanistic social scientists (Sedlac ek, in press a). The tendency to view research as non-humanistic works against social action because it makes it easier for those who favor the status quo to define the issues without data, and by doing so, to prevent change. The great strength of researc h is its ability to provide evidence that there is a problem or problems that should be addressed. When used in this manner, research can become a powerful tool for social change (Sedlacek and Brooks, 1973).

This article presents and analyzes an example of just such a circumstance--a situation in which research concerning the needs and problems of African-American students at a large predominantly White university, conducted over a 25 year period, was used to defend that university against a reverse-discrimination lawsuit. The suit in question was brought by an Hispanic student with the support of a conservative legal foundation. The assumption that there should be a scholarship program for undergraduate A frican-American students at the university was challenged in the lawsuit. The plaintiff claimed that the effects of past discrimination against African-American students had been ameliorated. In the larger sense, the plaintiff proposed that affirma tive action programs were no longer necessary in our society, particularly in higher education.

In the 1960's, the central administration of the university in question showed little interest in promoting diversity and did not wish to offer programs, whether academic or nonacademic, for any subgroup of students based on race or culture. No attempt s were made to recruit, retain, or provide scholarships, course work or social organizations for students of color which might have encouraged such students to attend the school. However, a variety of diversity-promoting activities were begun during this period by units of the university. A Black Student Union was formed; a faculty-student group began to recruit African-American students; the first course offerings on topics such as racism were taught; and he research described in this article was begun. A pivotal goal of the research was to make the university aware of the existence of racism at the school and of the need to do something about it (Sedlacek and Brooks, 1973).

The long term goal of the research was uniquely fulfilled when 25 years results were used to defend the university's scholarship program for African-American students against reverse discrimination charges. The long term nature of the research played a critical role in the lawsuit. Data on the campus racial climate from the 1960's through the 1990's was used to document the continuing negative effects of past discrimination, and by so doing support the continuing need for an African-American scholarshi p program.

The Lawsuit

In the early 1970's, the university was faced with a court order to eliminate "present effects of past discrimination.". The university initiated several programs including undergraduate scholarships for African-American students with high test scores, high grades, and who otherwise showed promise. An Hispanic student challenged the racial exclusivity of the scholarship. The student claimed that after nearly 20 years, the affirmative action programs were no longer necessary because there were no presen t effects of past discrimination.

Models of Understanding Racism

The over-arching goal of the research program was to increase the university's awareness that racism existed at the school and that the school had a responsibility to do something about it. The writer and his colleagues viewed the university as a clien t that might be encouraged to function at a higher developmental stage. To help the reader understand the context for this effort, two models for understanding racism will be presented.

One model developed by Sedlacek and Brooks (1976) was designed to eliminate racism in institutions. A second model developed by Helms (1992) focuses more on individuals than institutions but might be applied to the university as an "individual." Both m odels present linear stages of development, although their stages are not necessarily moving along the same dimensions. Both are presented in order to give the reader some different perspectives on interpreting changes in the university's behavior.

Sedlacek-Brooks Model

The research was based upon work by Sedlacek and Brooks (1976), a six-stage model for the elimination of racism in educational settings. They propose that individuals or organizations need to proceed through a series of six linear stages before rac ism can be reduced or ended. The stages are: (1) Cultural and Racial Differences, (2) Understanding and Dealing with Racism, (3) Understanding Racial Attitudes, (4) Sources of Racial Attitudes, (5) Setting Goals, and (6) Developing Strategies.

The cultural and racial differences stage is an awareness stage in which information is presented about different groups, how they perceive issues differently, and need different programs and services. Many current programs emphasizing diversity stress this stage. Institutional data on the number of people in different groups as well as social science research on the problems, attitudes and needs of these groups are useful at this developmental level. Research plays an important role in this stage beca use it can provide information about diversity within the institution and challenge assumptions and stereotypes.

The second stage concerns learning to identify manifestations of racism (both individual and institutional) and to recognize what might be done to ameliorate them. Research on barriers to achievement by students and faculty of color, such as admissions and retention policies, biased curricula, and the effects of a negative interracial climate are all useful in this stage.

Stage three involves an analysis of interracial attitudes. Getting the client to recognize its role in promoting negative interracial attitudes is a critical component of this stage. The Situational Attitude Scale (SAS) was developed for this purpose ( Sedlacek, in press b). The SAS procedure utilizes experimental and control forms to isolate reactions to particular racial groups (e.g. African-Americans).

Stage four focuses on understanding the sources of interracial attitudes, an acceptance of one's role in the process of racism, and leads to stage five, setting valid and realistic goals and stage six, developing strategies for eliminating racism.

In stage four, research on the history of racial issues at the university is presented and discussed. For example, an analysis of examples of racism from the campus newspaper was utilized in this stage.

Stage five involves a synthesis and study of the research material to generate a set of accomplishable goals, and in stage six one develops a series of strategies to match each of those goals.

The goal of the research was to move the university through these stages using a variety of research-related activities. One of the problems for any change agent is recognizing how long it may take an organization to move through these stages (Sedlacek and Brooks, 1976). The change agent must also recognize that different parts of the organization may change at different rates, and not necessarily in the same direction. The university was more than 130 years old when this change effort was undertaken. Viewed in context, the 25 year effort described here does not span that long a period in the university's history, especially when the goal is to effect significant change in a large and complex institution.

One other model for eliminating racism may help the reader interpret the complexity of the effort that was undertaken.

Helms Model

Helms (1992) has proposed a model of racial identity development for Black and White individuals that can also be applied to organizations. In her White Racial Identity model, the first stage is called "Contact." An individual (organization in this case) is "colorblind" and is unaware of racial differences in this stage. The organization assumes that people of other races would want to assimilate into the White or the only viable culture.

Helms' second stage, Disintegration, involves guilt and confusion at being unable to reconcile being White with the treatment of people of other races. Reintegration is the next phase wherein the White organization professes its lack of racism and dire cts anger and hostility toward people of color. A state of denial exists during this phase.

The organization believes that White culture is still best, but recognizes that racism exists and some few Whites other than themselves are responsible for it in the Pseudo-Independence stage. Whites are seen as having advantages over other racial grou ps, but this gap can be eliminated by helping other racial groups to pull themselves up to the level of White culture.

While not directly comparable to the Sedlacek-Brooks model the client (organization) here could be seen as processing research or experience on cultural and racial differences (stage 1) understanding racism (stage 2) and examining racial attitudes (sta ge 3).

The Immersion/Emersion stage entails taking responsibility for the process of racism and feeling angry and embarrassed about it. Again, though not directly comparable to the Sedlacek-Brooks model it is at this stage that an individual (organization) mi ght begin to set goals (stage 5).

The final stage, autonomy, involves the attempt to interact with other races from a positive, non-racist perspective. Here the organization truly values diversity. Miville, Molla, and Sedlacek (1992) have called this universal orientation. Helms' last stage could be seen as an action stage similar to Sedlacek and Brooks' stage 6 where strategies are carried out.

The Research

The research provided four major types of evidence to document the university's racial climate. Most of the documentation was available from empirical articles in professional journals and internal campus research reports before the lawsuit was initiat ed. The first type of research-generated evidence included numerous descriptive studies on the needs, problems and interests of African-American students on the campus. Many of these studies concluded that African-Americans had unique sets of problems and needs, including the need for more African-American faculty and staff and help in dealing with a hostile campus climate (Sedlacek, 1987).

A second type of research study focused on retention and identified a series of variables that correlated with the success of African-American students. The variables identified included an ability to handle racism, developing a racial/cultural communi ty on campus, and engaging in realistic self-appraisal despite the hostile environment. These research articles suggested many things the school could do to reduce the racism that caused African-American students problems (Sedlacek, 1993, Tracey and Sedla cek, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989).

A third type of study concerned the attitudes of Whites toward African-Americans on campus over many years (Balenger, Hoffman and Sedlacek, 1992; Sedlacek and Brooks, 1970; White and Sedlacek, 1987). These studies generally showed that despite increasi ng numbers of African-Americans and programs for them, Whites still had fundamentally negative attitudes toward Blacks which were largely unchanged over the 25 year period.

The fourth type of research evidence was an historical analysis of the campus newspaper over a 25 year period. Examples of negative incidents involving African-Americans were counted and cataloged. The result of this effort showed a continuous stream o f examples depicting a negative racial climate for African-American students and faculty/staff. This study was conducted expressly to provide evidence for the lawsuit by the writer and his colleagues.

Social Change Activity

While the research information discussed above was available to anyone willing to read the articles, the lawyers representing the university, the state, and the civil rights groups involved, felt that a summary report and direct testimony from the rese archer would have the most impact on the case. The writer worked out a set of principles to guide his activities prior to agreeing to serve as an expert witness and explained them to the lawyers and university officials involved.

The first principle was to be helpful to the lawyers. Rather than to be self-righteous or guided solely by what any change agent with this unique opportunity might like to say, an attempt was made to put the research in a context that would be optimall y useful to the lawyers. Sedlacek and Brooks (1976) noted that it is important for a social change agent to concentrate on what works, not what one would like to see work.

This principle was followed by concentrating work on the most salient issues for the case. It was tempting to comment on many issues not directly raised by the research, but an approach focused on key research results seemed to have a better chance of being helpful to the lawyers and of making the writer's contribution count.

For instance, there was evidence available indicating problems for students and faculty in racial/cultural groups other than African-Americans or Hispanics (e.g., Arabs, international students, Jews, women, gays). Rather than to try to tie together iss ues affecting these groups into broader issues, the researcher focused on the more narrow issues in the case.

The second principle was to use the opportunity to reduce the racism against African-Americans at the university. Racism was defined as policies or procedures (formal or informal) in an organization that result in negative outcomes for members of a cer tain group (e.g., African-Americans) just because they are members of that group (Sedlacek and Brooks, 1976). Results, not intentions are what count using this definition. The lawyers would have preferred a less forceful term to describe the problems face d by African-Americans at the university, but adhering to this principle required defining racism and using the term in reports to the court.

Presenting the research in language the lawyers and a judge could interpret in legal terms while adhering to the second principal was a challenge. In reports to the court, the writer followed the second principle by concluding that there currently was racism against African-Americans at the university and that there had been for some time. He also concluded that the scholarship program should be maintained exclusively for African-Americans since it would take several, if not many, generations for Afric an-Americans to see the university as a comfortable place for them and their children to attend. Recruiting and retaining successful African-American students was an important part of that process. The university needed to show its commitment to this goal by sticking with its programs, not by backing off under pressure.

The third principle was that racism against Hispanics be reduced at the university. Many Hispanics resented what they perceived as more attention to the problems of African-Americans rather than to those of Hispanics on campus. Hispanics also struggled with racism (Fuertes, Cothran, and Sedlacek, 1991; Fuertes and Sedlacek, 1993) and prejudice from non-Hispanics (White and Sedlacek, 1987). Many Hispanics watched with suspicion as they waited to see how the university would respond to the case.

The third principle was followed by calling for more university programs, including scholarships for Hispanics in order to counter all forms of racism. Hispanics have unique needs and should not be lumped together with other groups or students in gener al. Research on campus had shown that a major difficulty for Hispanic students was deciding when to seek out programs for Hispanics and when to use general programs (Fuertes, Sedlacek and Westbrook, 1989). Helping students in that process could be an impo rtant counseling/advocacy service to offer.

As often happens in a lawsuit, both sides decided to focus on a more limited legal point. Consequently, the Hispanic issue was dropped from the case. The lawsuit concentrated on whether to continue the scholarship for African-Americans or open it to al l students. By indirectly avoiding the issue of Hispanics, this outcome could be interpreted as a racist position by the university. For example, the university could be seen as concerned with African-American issues only, and that Hispanic issues were no t important. This could have negative consequences for Hispanics seeking to reduce the racism engaged in by the university against them. Nevertheless, the writer did raise this issue in reports to the lawyers and the university, and the institution has in itiated plans for several new programs for Hispanics.

The final guiding principle was maintaining personal integrity. The probability of encountering serious role-conflicts was very high. It was important to make decisions based on the best course, rather than was politically correct or expedient. Relying on the models presented earlier and one's own experience and judgement were critical for a change agent in circumstances such as these.

The final principle was implemented by avoiding opportunistic behavior and concentrating on doing what seemed best overall. The university was going through a series of budget reductions at the time and was anxious to improve its relationship with the citizens in its state. Departments within the university were vying for favor with the administration by suggesting they were the diversity "experts" or they had something special to offer African-Americans, Hispanics, the university in general or the cas e in particular. By putting the goal of social change first, it was hoped that the writer's work would have the best chance of contributing to the reduction of racism at the university in the long run. For example, some budget decisions were being made on programs in the researcher's department. It would have been possible to directly or indirectly support these initiatives as a focus of work on the case. Instead, an attempt was made to concentrate on the implications of the research, wherever that took a given issue.

Results and Implications

The lawsuit itself was decided by a judge who twice ruled in favor of the university's scholarship program for African-American students. The decision is now in appeal. However this, article is not about the legal outcome, it is about what happened at the university because of the case. In effect, the university fulfilled the major long term goal of the research by recognizing the existence of racism on the campus and by beginning to take responsibility for doing something about it. The university cite d data from the research cited here as evidence for its position. While different departments and programs have made use of the research information over the years, it was the first official recognition of the research results by the institution.

It will take time to determine all of the implications of the university's position. The university's admission may be a major event in its history, an event that demonstrates the institution's movement toward a less racist posture, and the development of a better racial self-concept by the institution as a whole. Or, it may be a minor event representing little more than the institution's expedient attempt to defend itself against a lawsuit. Assuming the university's admission of racism represents a po sitive step, it is important that we scrutinize and capitalize on this event.

Use of Racism Models

The models of understanding racism presented earlier may offer some perspective on the university's developmental movement during this case. Viewed through the Sedlacek-Brooks (1976) model, the university may be seen as moving from stage 3, underst anding racism and examining racial attitudes, to stage 4, exploring the sources and implications of those attitudes. Sedlacek and Brooks suggested that change agent should be ready to move the client into stage 5, goal setting, to take advantage of the en ergy and interest in changing that comes about in stage 4. Counseling professionals are well suited to helping clients make this transition, because we are trained in goal setting techniques and in developing related strategies.

This case demonstrates the value of data gathering and process assessment through the earlier stages of institutional development, even though it may have taken the university 25 years or more to reach it's current stage,. The same principles and strat egies can be applied to other settings to facilitate shorter term work for change with individuals or institutions. Research can be broadly defined and may involve quantitative and/or qualitative procedures. Groups working to alleviate racism may be compr ised of members with a diversity of race, culture, gender and professional interests and abilities, including research orientation. For example, nearly all the research articles cited to defend the university against the lawsuit cited in the reference sec tion here were conducted and co-authored by a diverse team including African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites.

From the perspective of the Helms (1992) model, the school may be seen as moving through Pseudo-Independence into Immersion/Emersion, because the university came to sees its role in contributing to racism and was willing to do something about it. Again , counseling professionals may be particularly helpful in stimulating development. Cross-cultural counseling methods (Nwachuku and Ivey, 1991; Ponterotto, 1991), workshops on multicultural issues (Sue, 1991; Westbrook and Sedlacek, 1988) or courses offere d in counseling curricula (McEwen and Roper, 1994; Garcia, Wright, and Corey, 1991) are examples of strategies and techniques that counselors may use to help the institutional client make a successful stage transition.

Both of these models provide a structure in which change agents can plan interventions and evaluate outcomes. However, the models are generic and theoretical. How can one assess where the university is currently functioning in relationship to the model (s)? One may observe positions the client institution takes on the multicultural proposals and programs that are placed before it. Is the school willing to be creative and positive in developing its academic and nonacademic programs for students and facul ty/staff of color? Or, does it remain in some degree of denial, where problems and solutions are seen as the province of others, particularly the people of color themselves?

While celebrating victory in one of the legal battles, a high level university administrator remarked that he was glad that the university had won, but that he wished the institution had not had to admit it was racist in order to do so. He wished there had been another way. The writer countered that he considered the admission to be a positive step in recognizing the problem and in deciding what to do about it. The writer admitted feeling more positive toward the university because it had been willing to acknowledge its racism. The writer then briefly outlined Helms' model. The administrator listened and admitted he had not thought of it that way. He did not necessarily agree, but he was willing to think about it.

When the institutional client has improved its racial self-concept the change agent can facilitate the developmental process developing more creative anti-racism proposals, rather than continuing to spend time and energy re-documenting the problem. The institution may be ready for higher level activity. If it is, dynamic leadership at this critical time could make a big difference. The client may be ready for a new type of intervention. This possibility is one the writer plans on promoting at his unive rsity to all who will listen.

A Final Caution

This article has focused on the role of research conducted by the writer and his colleagues in defending the university against one lawsuit. Activity on the case included the research of many others, and thousands of professionals and students, current ly, and over the years, have contributed greatly to reducing racism at the university. This article is not intended to diminish those contributions. It is an attempt to document the impact of the activities of one group of people on what may be a signal e vent in the life of an institution.

It is the writer's hope that this article will prove useful and informative to those actively working for social change and more importantly, to those who are ready to become more active. The task is large; lets get on with it.


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