Mass transit and the way we break racial, ethnic barriers

There’s a new argument for more mass transit — an easing of racial tension.

A Harvard study released this week found that commuter rail and transit stops, encouraging more interraction, broke down ethnic and racial barriers, the Boston Globe reports today:

(Harvard professor Ryan) Enos’s study focused on the reactions of routine commuter rail riders after they began seeing Mexican immigrants, placed by researchers on nine train platforms between Worcester and Franklin and South Station. After just three days, riders showed increasingly anti-immigrant attitudes.

But, after 10 days, their negative feelings began to subside, a sign, Enos said, that routine exposure to unfamiliar people on public transportation, though initially jarring, can shift attitudes for the positive in the long run.

Enos, who has conducted studies on segregation and the role that race plays in politics, said the commuter rail experiment was born from a need to find a way to test for prejudice in a real-world setting. Changes in attitude about race or culture are difficult to test in a laboratory, he said, because people are rarely willing or able to report their own subconscious biases accurately.

Of course, the study isn’t about the merits of transit at all; it’s just that transit is one of the few areas where random interraction can be studied on a wide scale.

No, it’s about how we relate to people who are different from us. Introduced to differences, our antipathy increases over a short period of time, and eases over the longer term.

But Sam R. Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, said Enos’s study paints a too-rosy picture of the potential for public transportation. A train platform or the seats on a bus rarely offer an opportunity for meaningful, substantive conversation or interactions, said Sommers. And, he pointed out, respondents in Enos’s study were still warier of immigrants after the experiment began, even if their reactions were more muted after two weeks.

But, Sommers said, Enos’s research confirms studies of cross-cultural interactions in workplaces, schools, or the military: Initially, people are uncomfortable, and tensions are high. But after a while, people begin to develop more positive feelings toward the people who at first made them uncomfortable.

“The initial effects of diversity can be negative and tough,” Sommers said. “But, with time, negative effects on cohesion and morale begin to diminish, and diversity starts to become an asset.”