Does Public Transit Reduce or Increase Prejudice?

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CC BY 2.0. Rodrigo Basaure

Some recent research out of Harvard seems to suggest that public transit can be helpful in reducing prejudice... or maybe the opposite.

Ryan D. Enos, assistant professor of government at Harvard, recently authored a study examining the opinions of routine commuter rail riders before and after some Mexican immigrants were artificially added to their line. The initial reaction was much greater "exclusionary attitudes" toward Spanish-speaking groups (i.e., prejudice). However, over time, those exclusionary attitudes diminished a bit.

According to a report in The Boston Globe, the study "finds that mixing with people of different ethnic backgrounds can influence social acceptance, at first for the worse, but then for the better." The study is behind a paywall and the abstract doesn't actually state that. It just focuses on the exclusionary attitudes: "Here, I report the results of a randomized controlled trial testing the causal effects of repeated intergroup contact, in which Spanish-speaking confederates were randomly assigned to be inserted, for a period of days, into the daily routines of unknowing Anglo-whites living in homogeneous communities in the United States, thus simulating the conditions of demographic change. The result of this experiment is a significant shift toward exclusionary attitudes among treated subjects. This experiment demonstrates that even very minor demographic change causes strong exclusionary reactions."

However, I'll assume that Martine Powers of The Boston Globe read the study because she discussed the positive turnaround at length.

“Regions predicted to become more diverse should expect initial conflict,” Enos wrote, according to Powers. “However, these results also suggest that more prolonged contact or interpersonal interaction can diminish initial exclusionary impulse.”

"Enos also argues the study makes the case that public transportation can be a force for good by eventually diminishing prejudices between disparate ethnic groups," Powers added.

Oh yes, Powers also got quotes from Enos that painted the findings in an even more positive light. “These things like public transit and the way we build our cities very much affect how we interact with people and how we get along as groups,” Enos said. “When we invest in infrastructure, we bring intergroup harmony by encouraging people to interact.”

Wait a sec...

Now, if you're a little confused about the conclusion Enos has come to, you're not the only one. I'm with you, and I'm not the only one. In the study, the normal (primarily white) riders never end up with less exclusionary attitudes than before the immigrants were introduced to their line. Thus, Sam R. Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, argues that the picture painted by Enos is too rosy. The net result is still a negative reaction. (And, as I noted, that is all that the abstract of the paper mentions.)

The core matter may also be the superficial nature in which people interact on transit, Sommers notes. As summarized by Powers: "A train platform or the seats on a bus rarely offer an opportunity for meaningful, substantive conversation or interactions, said Sommers."

Chiming in with my own subjective opinion here, I will say that I love riding transit and observing the great variety of humanity that joins me there. I have had chats with many other transit riders over the years. However, I don't think I've ever "made a friend" on transit. The interactions are simply too short and intermittent, often just a single instance. When it comes to breaking down prejudices people have toward "others," I think that more familiarity is needed.

But maybe with more time

However, maybe with more time the initially exclusionary attitudes would switch over to inclusionary attitudes. The study period was reportedly only 2 weeks. The conclusion from Enos seems to be that the trend towards more inclusionary attitudes would continue, as it had over the course of a couple of weeks, eventually leading to more "intergroup harmony."

Even Sommers seems to agree that this could be the eventual shift:

But, Sommers said, Enos’s research confirms studies of cross-cultural interactions in workplaces, schools, or the military: Initially, people are uncomfortable, and tensions are high. But after a while, people begin to develop more positive feelings toward the people who at first made them uncomfortable.
“The initial effects of diversity can be negative and tough,” Sommers said. “But, with time, negative effects on cohesion and morale begin to diminish, and diversity starts to become an asset.”

And one of the comments from one of the Spanish-speaking study participants supports this:

“People have started to recognize and smile to us.”

One of the routine riders even came out and stated this to one of the Spanish-speaking riders: “The longer you see the same person every day, the more confident you feel to greet and say hi to them.”

How was this study conducted anyhow?

One of my first questions when reading the title of the article in The Boston Globe was, "but how exactly was this study conducted?" I hated having to dig for an answer to that, but it seems I've made you do the same. So, let's finlly get to some of those details.

From Powers: "Enos and his staff took to Craigslist to enlist pairs of Mexican immigrants, mostly men in their 20s, to wait every day on platforms on the Franklin and Worcester/Framingham line. The immigrants were instructed to stand at the platform, but were not told what to say to one another or that they needed to speak at all." The immigrants did indeed talk in Spanish while standing together at the platforms

Routine riders were asked to fill out surveys before and after the new faces appeared on their usual weekday morning commute. Enticed with $5 gift cards, the respondents, 83 percent of whom identified themselves as white, answered myriad questions, including three pertaining to immigration.
At first, commuters were not fans of the new faces on their commuter rail platform, at least according to their reported views on immigration. Compared with initial survey responses, the routine riders who had noticed the new Spanish-speaking riders for three days were less enthusiastic about increasing the number of immigrants in the United States, less willing to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, and more likely to believe that English should be declared the country’s official language.
“People’s attitudes moved sharply in this exclusionary direction,” Enos said. “I was surprised that the effects were strong.”
But, after a little more than a week, those views softened, though respondents were still warier of immigrants than when the experiment started.

I'll leave it at that and let you continue the conversation. As you make your way down to the comments (and sharing buttons), here are some pictures to help you in your pondering:

public transit

Thomas Leuthard/CC BY 2.0

wall street

Jens Schott Knudsen/CC BY-NC 2.0

Chicago transit

Erin Nekervis/CC BY-NC 2.0

transit prejudice study

Charly 'n Paris/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Paris metro public transit

Charly 'n Paris/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0