It’s a core lesson of introductory psychology: Intergroup contact reduces prejudice (especially friendly, equal-status contact). As hundreds of studies show, attitudes—of White folks toward Black folks, of straight folks toward gay folks, and of natives toward immigrants—are influenced not just by what we know but also by whom we know. Prejudice lessens when straight people have gay friends or family, and native-born citizens know immigrants.
As I write these words from the place of my childhood—Bainbridge Island, Washington—I am moved to offer a family example of the power of social contact. First, consider a large social experiment—the World War II internment and return of Japanese Americans from (a) California, and (b) Bainbridge, a Manhattan-sized island across Puget Sound from Seattle.
In minimal-contact California, Japanese-Americans lived mostly in separate enclaves—meaning few Caucasians had Japanese-descent friends. When the California internment ensued, the Hearst newspapers, having long warned of “the yellow peril” celebrated, and few bid the internees goodbye. On their return, resistance and “No Japs Here” signs greeted them. Minimal contact enabled maximal prejudice.
Bainbridge was a contrasting high-contact condition—and was also the place where (at its ferry dock on March 30, 1942) the internment began. As an island community, all islanders intermingled as school classmates. Their strawberry farms and stores were dispersed throughout the island. The local paper (whose owners later won awards for journalistic courage) editorialized against the internment and then published internee news from the camps for their friends back home. The internees’ fellow islanders watched over their property. And when more than half the internees returned after the war, they were greeted with food and assistance. A history of cooperative contact enabled minimal prejudice.
I can personalize this. One of those saying a tearful goodbye on the dock that 1942 day was my father, the insurance agent and friend of many of them. After maintaining their property insurance during the internment, and then writing “the first auto policy on a Japanese American after the war,” his support was remembered decades later—with a tribute at his death by the island’s Japanese American Community president (a former internee):
My father provides a case example of the contact effect. His support did not stem from his being socially progressive. (He was a conservative Republican businessperson who chaired the Washington State Nixon for President campaign.) His opposition to the internment of his fellow islanders was simply because he knew them. He therefore believed it was colossally unjust to deem them—his friends and neighbors—a threat. As he later wrote, “We became good friends … and it was heartbreaking for us when the war started and the Japanese people on Bainbridge Island were ordered into concentration camps.”
This great and sad experiment on the outcomes of racial separation versus integration is being replicated in our own time. People in states with the least contact with immigrants express most hostility toward them. Meanwhile, those who know and benefit from immigrants—as co-workers, employees, businesspeople, health-care workers, students—know to appreciate them.
It’s a lesson worth remembering: Cordial and cooperative contact advances acceptance.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)