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By Jen Overbeck, Chris Wolsko, Melody Sadler, Geoff Urland, Megan Lineberger

We are members of the University of Colorado Stereotyping and Prejudice lab at the Boulder campus, which researches stereotyping and prejudice from a psychological science perspective. We were greatly concerned to learn that a third grader's science experiment was barred from her school's science fair because it deals with race (Daily Camera Feb. 14). We hope our perspectives will aid all parties in re-evaluating the situation, and we hope that we can all learn from this experience so that it doesn't happen again.

Boulder Valley School District official Veronica Benavidez says, tellingly, "A science fair is not the way we choose to discuss race relations." We must disagree with the perspective this statement represents. Race relations — the issues of how humans stereotype one another and experience prejudice toward one another — is most emphatically a legitimate part of the broad discipline of "science."

As evidence of this fact, we point out that the National Science Foundation annually awards millions of dollars in grants to researchers who study stereotyping and prejudice. The National Institute of Mental Health, another premier science funding agency, makes such grants as well. A wide variety of peer-reviewed scientific publications — including those centered on social and psychological sciences, and including the highly-regarded journal Science — publish articles on scientific research and theory about stereotyping and prejudice (see, for example, Shearer and Gould, 1999, in Science.)

There is sometimes a bias against social science that it is not "really science." It is hoped that, as the educators entrusted to develop Boulder's youth, the bodies constituting the BVSD do not share this biased and inaccurate view. Social science has been recognized repeatedly as a discipline with methodological rigor and well-supported findings.

In fact one such finding, by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was instrumental in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end school segregation, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Interestingly, this finding — that segregation harmed African American children's self-esteem — arose from a study in which white children and black children were asked whether they preferred white or black dolls. One result, black children's preference for white dolls, has altered the course of public education in our country ever since. Given that stereotyping and prejudice are recognized internationally be the scientific community as legitimate topics within the realm of "science," we believe that Ms. Benavidez's stated basis for excluding the girl's project is invalid.

In addition, one might evaluate whether the girl's project has enough scientific merit to be included in the fair. That is, did she perform good science, and not just a study that was inflammatory or titillating? The newspaper didn't report enough information for a thorough evaluation, but her project seems on its face like appropriate science for a third-grade level. Her study asks whether three independent variables (doll's skin color and dress color, and respondent age) had an effect on a dependent variable (doll preference) that seems to have been measured appropriately. This is a valid research question.

We can't critique her exact methods, but her approach appears reasonable and she appears to have made some effort to obtain a varied participant sample. She reported her findings — at least as quoted in the paper — objectively and clearly, with no incriminations or value judgments. All in all, if we accept that her topic is indeed a valid area of scientific inquiry, then the only remaining reason for excluding her from the fair should be that her project was done poorly — that her science was bad. We see no evidence that this is true.

Finally, we would like to comment briefly on the school's and district's hesitation to allow the girl to display her project from a political-climate point of view. The concern that minority children might feel "uncomfortable" is, we're sure, well-intended, but misplaced. This point of view promotes an environment in which differences and prejudices are covered up and denied. Our research identifies this as a "colorblind" model, and indeed it is often shown to be a model that whites feel more comfortable using.

However, the alternative "multi-cultural" model, in which group differences are acknowledged and wrestled with, has emerged in some research as potentially more effective at improving intergroup attitudes. Thus in the school's and district's efforts to protect minority children, they may inadvertently be doing just the opposite. Often social institutions approach the issue of race with "feel-good events" such as the celebration of ethnic holidays, to the exclusion of a scientifically rigorous examination of the questions of interest. The latter is clearly at least as important as the former, and essential to the development of a society in which groups from various ethnic backgrounds can work productively together.

Thank you for considering our views. We hope that we've been informative, and we are willing to provide any follow-up information that might be useful. Please feel free to contact Jen Overbeck at (303) 735-2124 if you are interested in discussing these issues or if we may be of further assistance.

(Jen Overbeck, Chris Wolsko, Melody Sadler, Geoff Urland, Megan Lineberger are doctoral students in psychology at CU.)

March 4, 2001

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