College students’ attitudes toward racial discrimination

College students’ attitudes toward racial discrimination

Frank Biasco

The study of college students’ attitudes toward racial discrimination was conducted among students attending a northwest Florida university. The samples consisted of one-tenth of the student population during the summer term. The subjects were randomly selected after being stratified for gender and race. Black students and other minorities consistently reported different racial attitudes compared to those of White students. The findings are discussed in relation to other studies on racial discrimination.


Attitudes are often studied in order to determine behaviors associated with them. Biasco (1989,1991,1992,2000) has conducted numerous studies on college students’ attitudes to determine whether they reflect those of the general public. Because of the current interest in racial discrimination, both on and off campuses, the study was conducted to determine college students’ attitudes toward racial discrimination.

Discrimination refers to behavioral responses that are unfavorable to ethnic members. Therefore, racial discrimination is defined as “unjustified, negative or harmful conduct, verbal or physical, that is directed at an individual because of one’s race, color, national origin, or ethnicity” (Arson, Wilson, & Akert, 1999).

There has been a significant increase in the number of ethnically diverse students entering colleges and universities. Landmark court decisions that have challenged discriminatory admission policies to higher educational institutions and recent demographic trends have contributed to the creation of ethnically diverse student bodies (Ancis, Mohr, & Sedlacek 2000).

Research suggests that ethnically diverse students experience campus life differently due to racial discrimination. A study on group relations (McAlister, 1997) found that differences in attitudes existed toward racial discrimination with college education generating more favorable attitudes. Those who had higher levels of education were more racially tolerant and reported the lowest feelings of prejudice and hostility.

A study conducted by a sociologist (Bonilla-Silva 1998), revealed that students at three U.S. colleges, which included the University of Florida, were found to have a “hidden reservoir of racial animosity and suspicion” underneath a “veneer of antiracist attitudes”. What the students reported on questionnaires contradicted what they expressed in personal interviews of not being racist with the White college students being less tolerant. For example, on a survey, 90% of Whites found interracial marriages to be acceptable, but only 30% held that view in the personal interviews.

Smith, Roberts, and Smith (1997) studied problems of racial relations on college campuses. They administered three assessments over a 42-month period to investigate subtle racism of white college students. The findings suggested that racial discrimination was increasing on college campuses in the United States and that prejudices have become more complex and covertly expressed.

According to research by Hewitt and Seymour (1991), black students who were enrolled in smaller colleges did not find any racial discrimination on their campuses. However, Blacks who attended large universities spoke of “subtle racism” which they felt was expressed covertly by non-minority students through behaviors of avoidance. Most minority students perceived the “subtle racism” on college campus from both white students and white faculty. In interviews, the researchers found that White students felt “resentment and hostility” toward minority-based financial assistance which was awarded based on race rather than financial need. Minorities felt that the programs that were designed to recruit, assist, and retain minority students placed some stereotyped characteristics on minorities.

According to a University of California, Los Angeles study by Astin (1997), faculty diversification fell short in terms of numbers. Faculty of color were underrepresented in academic ranks with a greater percentage (32%) occupying ranks lower than assistant professors compared to whites (17%). Yet, minorities have been shown to be better at preparing students for citizenship than White faculty and are more likely to promote positive racial relations than White faculty. This may be due to their sensitivity since more than twice as many faculty of color, (49%) were able to notice subtle discrimination compared to only 21% of White faculty. In fact, more faculty of color, (77%) believe in promoting racial understanding whereas only 50% of white faculty believed it was an important life goal.

With an increasingly diverse student population unfolding in the United States, the study sought to explore college students’ attitudes toward racial discrimination at a small, northwestern, conservative Florida university to determine whether the findings were consistent with those of other colleges across the nation.



Five hundred and twenty participants (312 women and 208 men) were randomly chosen from among the students attending the University of West Florida during the summer term and represented one-tenth of the student body. The students were approached in classrooms, housing, commons area, sports complex, food court, and other campus facilities. The subjects were stratified by gender and race to ensure that a proportionate representation was reflected in the study.


The instrument consisted of a three point Likert-type scale with possible responses being `agree’, `undecided’, and `disagree’. It consisted of one sheet with 19 demographic items on one side and 21 statements on the other side dealing with racial discrimination.


The subjects were approached on a face-to-face basis; no deception was used. Subjects were advised that they were under no obligation to participate in the research and that they could stop at any time.


Of the students who participated in the questionnaire, 41% were males and 59% were females with 75% being white, 9% being black, 3% being Hispanic, 5% Asian, and 5% in the `other’ category. The respondents in the study were aged 19-21, (30%); aged 22-25, (24%); aged 26-40 (31%); only 10% were 41 or above while 5% were aged 18 and below.

Sixty percent of the respondents in the study were single while 27% were married and 11% were divorced with 2% separated. The religious preference of the participants were 31% Protestant, 23% Catholics, 1% Jewish, and 1% Muslim, with 44% being of the `other’ religious affiliations. On political registration, 38% said they were registered as Republicans and 27% said they were registered as Democrats, 13% Independent, and 3% being “Other”. Nineteen Percent said they were not registered.


The study attempted to determine whether the student population was experiencing any racial discrimination and if so by whom and where. When asked whether the students encountered discrimination in their lives, 2% said always, whereas 44% said sometimes, and 53% said never. But when asked whether racial discrimination was encountered on campus, 33% said never, whereas 15% said daily, 21% once a week, 18% said once a month, and 13% said once a year.

When asked whether racial discrimination is experienced by minority students, 66% Blacks, 61% Hispanic, and 61% Asian reported in the affirmative whereas only 41% of Whites said yes. When asked whether “people who feel that they are discriminated against are just oversensitive”, Whites said yes by 17%, but Blacks said yes by 7%, Hispanics said yes by 15%, and Asians said yes by 15%. As to whether “racial hostility is still felt although not openly expressed”, all races agreed: Whites 74%, Blacks 85%, Hispanics 73%, and Asian 77%.

The study also sought to determine who were the ones to experience the racial discrimination. When asked whether minority students encountered racial discrimination even from other minority students, Whites said yes by 48%, 66% of Blacks said yes, 61% of Hispanics said yes, and 61% of Asians said yes. When asked against whom the students discriminated, students said against Whites (9%), against Blacks (28%), against Hispanics (4%), and against Asians (2%); 42% said they never discriminate.

In an attempt to determine some of the factors influencing racial discrimination, subjects were asked whether fraternities and sororities contribute to racial discrimination. Whites said yes by 11%, whereas, Blacks said yes by 34%, Hispanics by 27%, and Asians 27%. However, some students believed that “minority groups promote their own racial discrimination by segregating themselves” with 55% of Whites agreeing, compared to 34% of Blacks; 61% of Hispanics, and 61% of Asians.

As to whether “students are racially discriminated against by professors”, Blacks said yes by 40%, Hispanics and Asians by 27%, and Whites by 11%. Asked whether racial discrimination is practiced in athletics, a large majority of all respondents, Whites 54%, Blacks 66%, Asian 61%, and Others 73%, all said yes, while only 38% of Hispanics felt that way. And whether campus police racially discriminate, Whites said yes by 13%, Hispanics 11%, compared to 35% of Blacks, and 42% of Asians. Whether “students racially discriminate when selecting peers for organizational offices, 23% of Whites said yes, whereas 45% of Blacks, 42% of Hispanics, and 46% of Asians said yes.

The study also sought to determine the perceived causes of racial discrimination. Many students believe that racial discrimination is learned behavior, (whites 82%, Blacks 75%, Hispanics 88%, and Asian 76%). Similarly, on the statement that “educated people racially discriminate less than uneducated people”, 43% of Whites, 32% of Blacks, 31% of Hispanics, and 38% of Asians agreed. All groups (Blacks 75%, Whites 70%, Hispanics 76%, and Asian 61%) believe that ignorance is the cause of racial discrimination.

As to whether “The campus is racially hostile”, Whites agreed by 6% compared to 13% of Blacks, 11% of Hispanics, and 4% of Asians. And as to whether the University of West Florida employs an insufficient number of minority faculty staff and administrators, 51% of Blacks, 27% of Hispanics, and 11% of Asians said yes whereas only 14% of Whites said yes. Whether racial discrimination is less evident today than when their parents were students, all races said yes; Whites 69%, Blacks 40%, Hispanics 58%, and Asians 61%.

When asked whether the University of West Florida adequately promotes culturally diverse instruction and activities, 52% of Whites said yes, while only 28% of Blacks, 19% of Hispanics, and 38% of Asians said yes. As to whether The University of West Florida should make greater efforts to promote cultural diversity, even Whites (64%)said yes, while 77% of Blacks, 69% of Hispanics, and 58% of Asians said yes. And as to whether financial aid should be based on race rather than academic performance, Blacks by 34% and Hispanics by 23% said yes; Asian and Others said yes by 27% whereas only 11% of Whites said yes.


According to the data obtained in the study, there are differences in perceptions among the various races as to whether or not racial discrimination exists on the campus of the University of West Florida, a small college in a conservative community of northwest Florida. Essentially, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians perceive racial discrimination in higher percentages than do Whites. As pointed out by Cockriel, Cuijet & Gosset (1998), Non-Black college students are often unaware of the discrimination perceived by Black college students. This may account, in part, for the obvious differences in perceptions of racial discrimination at the University of West Florida. The study reflects and corroborates the findings of racial research in colleges elsewhere in the United States–namely, that differences of perception continue to exist between Whites and Non-Whites on racial discrimination on college campuses.

If these differences in perception and attitudes toward racial discrimination are to be reduced, it appears that some intensive effort will need to be applied. Perhaps the combined attention by the student government, the college administration, the faculty, and the community could bring about the needed changes.

Table 1

Racial Discrimination Items on Questionnaire and Percent Responses:

Subject Item Agree Undecided Disagree

1) Ignorance is the cause of racial 70.77 14.42 14.81


2) Racial discrimination is practiced 55.58 21.35 23.08

in athletics

3) Interracial marriages are socially 46.54 21.35 32.12


4) Minority students encounter racial 51.92 24.23 23.85

discrimination from non-minority


5) Job opportunities are equal among 20.58 13.46 66.96

the races.

6) The campus police racially 17.31 48.27 34.42

discriminate when dealing with


7) Racial discrimination is a learned 81.35 10.96 7.69


8) It is fair to award financial aid 15.38 14.04 70.58

based on race rather than just

academic performance.

9) Students racially discriminate when 44.23 22.12 33.65

choosing friends.

10) Greater efforts should be made to 65.77 21.35 12.88

promote. cultural diversity.

11) Educated people racially 40.96 23.08 35.96

discriminate less. than uneducated


12) Racial discrimination is encouraged 26.35 43.85 29.81

by fraternities and sororities.

13) Racial discrimination is less 64.62 18.08 17.31

prevalent today, compared to when

my parents were students.

14) The University adequately promotes 46.92 36.15 16.92

culturally diverse instruction and


15) The campus climate is racially 6.92 25.77 67.31


16) Minority groups promote their own 53.65 29.23 17.12

racial discrimination by

segregating themselves.

17) Students racially discriminate when 28.27 38.08 33.65

selecting peers for organizational


18) People who feel that they are 15.38 24.81 59.81

racially. discriminated against are

just oversensitive.

19) The University employs an 19.62 44.23 36.15

insufficient number of minority

faculty, staff, and administrators.

20) Racial hostility is still felt by 73.08 17.12 9.81

many people although not openly


21) Students are racially discriminated 16.73 31.35 51.92

against by professors.


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