Familiarity and Race

A study looks at racial attitudes among cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Racial attitudes can be significantly influenced by close contact between people of different races, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper’s findings are based on the unique process of roommate selection at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado.

As freshmen, cadets at the academy are assigned to 35-man squadrons, with their roommates chosen for them. Throughout their freshman year, they seldom interact with any students outside their squadrons. At the end of the year, cadets are reassigned to new squadrons; as sophomores, they choose their roommates themselves.

Authors Scott Carrell of the University of California Davis, Mark Hoekstra of Texas A&M University at College Station, and James West of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, examined USAFA roommate selection data. They found that after increased exposure to black peers, white male sophomores were more likely to room with black students.

The researchers looked specifically at what happened when white cadets were assigned black roommates. They found that the higher the black cadet’s academic performance, the more likely it was that the white cadet would choose a black roommate as a sophomore. The most profound difference occurred when white cadets from the Southern U.S.—where racial divides are especially prevalent—were assigned black roommates with grades in the top 25 percent of black students at the academy. As sophomores, these cadets were more than 35 percent more likely to choose black cadets as roommates than statistically identical Southern white males exposed to black students with grades in the lower 25 percent.

“The Impact of Intergroup Contact on Racial Attitudes and Revealed Preferences” is free to NBER subscribers at ssrn.com/abstract=2562231.