Enhancing Advantaged Racial Groups’ Recognition of Racial Inequality

Intergroup contact may be a key method of enhancing racial equity. 

Reviewed by Daniel Estupinan


Members of advantaged racial groups have historically denied or minimized the existence of racial inequality in the United States and other countries. Existing research has extensively analyzed the incentives and motivations behind why advantaged racial groups resist acknowledging the existence or scale of racial inequality. Some of those motivations include fear of losing privileged status in an increasingly multicultural society. This may contribute to subsequent efforts among those advantaged racial groups to preserve their privileged positions. Other potential factors include ignorance about the role racial identity plays in the lived experiences of people in communities of color. 

While there is significant literature on why advantaged racial groups may resist acknowledging racial inequality, we know very little about why some members of those privileged groups do acknowledge inequities. Emerging research has begun to provide insight into this topic by studying the role of interpersonal contact in enhancing empathy and psychological investment among privileged racial groups in the welfare of disadvantaged groups. This article draws on that research by providing several theories on why some members of advantaged racial groups may be motivated to acknowledge racial inequality and engage in collective efforts to alleviate it. 

This study was written by Professor of Social Psychology Linda R. Tropp and Associate Professor of Psychology Fiona Kate Barlow. Dr. Tropp is based at the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Dr. Barlow is based at the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. These researchers have both completed extensive research on intergroup contact, the structural factors that determine the development of empathy, and the role of status and power in those relationships.

Methods and Findings

Intergroup contact may be a key strategy for enhancing empathy and psychological investment among members of advantaged racial groups. The authors ground this theory in prior research that found contact between members of different racial and ethnic groups is correlated with reduced prejudice and improved intergroup attitudes. Ongoing and friendly contact can create meaningful relationships with the potential to motivate advantaged groups to support reforms benefiting disadvantaged communities. This dynamic has been observed in the context of affirmative action, where white individuals’ propensity to engage in interracial friendships was associated with their support for affirmative action. 

Some academics disagree with these assertions and argue that enhanced interracial contact does not address the structural relations between racial groups. Instead, these scholars argue, interracial contact may prevent some members of advantaged racial groups from recognizing racial inequality and may even undermine collective action among members of disadvantaged racial groups. However, the authors of this article point to recent research suggesting ways to prevent those dynamics from taking root.  Moreover, much of the existing literature suggests that interracial contact promotes psychological investment and enhances people’s capacity for caring about the welfare of other groups of people. 

Dr. Tropp and Dr. Barlow also pose the question: Why does interracial contact motivate reduced prejudice in some people, but motivate others to engage in collective action to address underlying structural inequalities? The authors posit that interracial contact has the potential to foster empathy among white individuals, leading to greater anger at racial injustice, and ultimately contributing to engagement in collective action.


Emerging literature on members of advantaged racial groups suggests that intergroup contact may be pivotal in enhancing these groups’ recognition of racial inequality and motivate their collective action. The authors recognize that these theories may present various challenges. For example, cognitive and motivational processes may guide individuals to focus on the welfare of members of their own perceived groups. With racial segregation continuing to inhibit opportunities for meaningful relationships between different racial and ethnic groups, these processes may be exacerbated as some members of advantaged racial groups believe they are locked in a competition to defend their status or resources. 

To counter these adverse effects, the authors suggest creating opportunities for racial and ethnic groups to engage in ongoing and meaningful relationships. This may require policies that promote racial integration and positive reinforcement by public figures and media. Ultimately, these public engagement efforts may inspire greater societal change that leads to a more inclusive and equitable society.


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