Feature Stories

Forcing Bias to Show its Face

On campus, in the courts, and out in the world, Linda Tropp fights the best of good fights
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“The truth is, we do not live in a post-racial society.… Racial bias and discrimination still have major impacts in our lives and in our communities.” 

—Linda Tropp

Linda R. Tropp is dedicated to recognizing, comprehending, and eliminating racism and discrimination in our society. Many Americans, of course, would like to believe that these scourges no longer exist. Alas, they do, both in their old, familiar forms and in new and subtler guises. Therein lies the endless challenge of Tropp’s work.

 As a professor of psychology and the director of the UMass Amherst’s Psychology of Peace and Violence Program, Tropp studies how members of different groups approach and relate to one another and how group differences in power or status affect views of and expectations for cross-group relations. Last May, as a featured speaker at the second Congressional Seminar Series, held in Washington, D.C., by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, she discussed the ways in which race-based discrimination continues to affect everyday interactions and policy choices.

It is difficult, Tropp told her audience, to specify the extent to which discriminatory or prejudicial beliefs influence public policy on such social issues as affirmative action and immigration, or on such law-and-order issues as stop-and-frisk or stand-your-ground laws. Even so, she emphasized, it is important for policymakers to understand the role that bias and discrimination can play and to recognize potential biases in how constituents and politicians frame, interpret, and evaluate policies and programs, because policies that may seem race-neutral in the abstract can, once implemented, have considerable racially differential consequences.

Of one misconception widely held in the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Tropp said: “The truth is, we do not live in a post-racial society. People see race and continue to be treated differently on the basis of race, so racial bias and discrimination still have major impacts in our lives and in our communities. But even though we live in a shared society, we don’t all necessarily see bias and discrimination in the same way.”

Tropp went on to summarize studies showing the tenacity of racial bias across many sectors, including education and employment, and the ways in which it continues to have a demonstrably ugly effect.

Tropp works hard to expose and eliminate such bias. Evidence of this is her service as a research advisor with the National Coalition on School Diversity, which presses for greater racial and economic integration in U.S. Department of Education programs. “The coalition,” Tropp explains, “includes policy advocates and research advisors who share information and are prepared to take action when events or cases arise relevant to diversity and racial integration in schools." 

Other examples of her influence abound. In 2011 Tropp provided expert testimony on the benefits of intergroup contact and racial integration to the Minnesota Education Commission Task Force on Integrated Schools. She has served as an expert reviewer for amicus curiae briefs submitted by the American Psychological Association and the American Education Research Association to the U.S. Supreme Court on cases concerning school-based racial-integration programs. Tropp has contributed scientific knowledge and feedback on briefs prepared by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Equal Justice Society for a case on the role of race in university admissions, and was a signatory on one of those briefs. And her work has been widely cited in briefs submitted to the Supreme Court by the American Psychological Association for other high-profile cases relevant to affirmative action.

Moreover, through her leadership of UMass Amherst’s Psychology of Peace and Violence Program Tropp helps assure that others will continue to carry on such work, both in this country and abroad, long into the future. The program, launched in 2004 by a private endowment and matching support through the university, is a pioneer in using scientific knowledge to resolve conflict, promote reconciliation, and build peaceful relations between groups around the world. Students and faculty in the program study why group relations become hostile and how to promote cooperation and nonviolent strategies in conflict reduction and resolution. The program trains doctoral students in basic social psychological theory and research—all with an emphasis, like Tropp’s, on translating this work for policy and applications to real-world contexts of conflict.

Of her work in general, Tropp says: “If the bad news is that many people harbor prejudices they might not be aware of, the good news is that there are well-established strategies for overcoming them. They include teaching about subtle forms of racial bias and encouraging people to reflect on and replace negative stereotypes. We can also foster opportunities to engage in genuine cross-racial or cross-cultural contact at work, in neighborhoods and public schools, and elsewhere. I believe that as a society we have both the will and the way to achieve greater understanding between groups.”

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