People who live in ethnically diverse streets are less racially prejudiced than individuals living in highly segregated areas and their increased tolerance is due directly to the experience of a more integrated society, a study has found.
Even when white people have little interaction with other groups living in the same ethnically diverse community, they feel more tolerant towards them purely because they witness positive interactions between different racial groups, it discovered.
The researchers who carried out the work have called the effect “passive tolerance” where a positive effect can be seen simply by living within a diverse community, similar to the negative effect of passive smoking when non-smokers are affected by the presence of smokers.
The findings emerged from the analysis of seven previous studies on community relations carried out between 2002 and 2012 in England, Europe, the United States and South Africa, and specifically tried to rule out the idea that the results can be explained by tolerant people being more likely to live in mixed neighbourhoods.
To eliminate the possibility that more tolerant people tend to live in more ethnically diverse areas, which would introduce bias to the results, two of the seven studies were conducted over several years to see how peoples’ attitudes changed over time, the researchers said.
This showed that even the attitudes of the most prejudiced people who did not mix at all with ethnic minorities became more tolerant over time as a result of living in areas were others were mixing on a daily basis, the researchers found.
“We have shown that positive contact between people belonging to different ethnic groups leads to more tolerant societies overall,” said Professor Miles Hewstone of Oxford University who led the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
“Astonishingly, we don't just see reduced prejudice among people who have direct contact with ethnic minorities. It isn't even confined to those whose friends have contact with minorities. Simply living in a neighbourhood where other people are mixing with minorities is enough to reduce racial prejudice,” Professor Hewstone said.
“If two white people with identical views went to live in different postcodes for a year, the person in the neighbourhood with more mixing between ethnic groups would likely leave more tolerant. We would see this effect even if they never personally spoke to people from other ethnicities. The size of this ‘passive tolerance’ effect on people's prejudice is of the same order as the effect of passive smoking on lung cancer risk,” he said.
The research focused in surveys of more than 1,000 Germans from 50 districts across Germany each with different ethnic mixtures. They were asked questions such as whether they agree that there were too many foreigners, or whether foreigners are a burden on social security or are a threat to jobs.
“Our results clearly show that districts with the most mixing between ethnic groups lead to the highest reductions in racial prejudice. Although our recent longitudinal studies were conducted in Germany, there is no reason to believe that these effects would not be the same across the world. The cross-sectional studies conducted in England, the US, and South Africa certainly support this idea,” Professor Hewstone said.
One implication of the work is that government policies should be directed towards encouraging integration between communities either in schools, workplaces or neighbourhoods, he added.
“Governments should do more to encourage different groups to mix with each other, as we now know that this reduces prejudice not just in individuals but throughout entire neighbourhoods. Social interventions that aim to increase contact between groups will help to establish more tolerant social norms in society. In the long run, this should lead to more harmonious neighbourhoods,” he said.