UCSC research professor receives top award in social psychology

Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, laments the fact that "hate is in," even though he's getting more invitations than ever to discuss intergroup relations and the hate, prejudice, and hostility between races that underlies many of the world's conflicts.

Pettigrew was recently honored for a lifetime of contributions to the field of social psychology when he received the prestigious Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (SESP). The society, an elected group of top international social psychologists, presents one such award each year. Pettigrew received the award at SESP's annual meeting October 12 in Columbus, Ohio.

Pettigrew has been at the forefront of research on racial prejudice for nearly 40 years. An expert on black-white relations in the United States, Pettigrew has also studied intergroup relations in South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. Pettigrew, who studied with the legendary scholar Gordon Allport at Harvard, is widely credited with demonstrating that racism is largely a matter of conformity to social norms and as such can be changed.

Much of Pettigrew's work has bearing on today's most intractable conflicts. In a forthcoming paper, Pettigrew argues that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see the other as the aggressor, justifying their own actions as defensive. Americans, too, justify a unilateral attack against Iraq as a response to a perceived threat.

"In times of war, when people and nations feel threatened, the right-wing element always rises to the fore," said Pettigrew. "It's not just that authoritarians act out their natural tendencies, but that people who don't share those views are more willing to go along with the authoritarian agenda."

As an example, Pettigrew cited recent public-opinion polls that found that 60 percent of Israelis support abandoning Israeli settlements on the West Bank, yet the Israeli government refuses to budge from its hard-line support of the settlements.

"The effects of government leadership lead to more discrimination and prejudice," said Pettigrew.

Despite real and visible progress in race relations, Pettigrew bemoans the economic suffering of many blacks in this country. "Every time I see a black man or woman on television giving the news, I like that," said Pettigrew. "Fifty years ago, you'd never see that. The civil rights movement didn't fail. It was successful for the top third of blacks in this country."

By contrast, though, life hasn't changed much for blacks in the ghettoes of major cities, according to Pettigrew. Only after many years of economic prosperity under Bill Clinton did the labor market become tight enough that private industry found it worthwhile to train unskilled blacks, he said. "It was remarkable--crime started going down, teen pregnancies declined," said Pettigrew. "The economic boon of the '90s finally reached the depths of the ghetto, and it was beginning to pay off."

Whether those gains will hold during this economic downturn is unclear, noted Pettigrew.

As one of the nation's leading social psychologists, Pettigrew laments the lack of impact on policy he and his colleagues have had over the past 30 years.

Many of the underlying assumptions about human behavior embedded in government policy are "demonstrably wrong," he said, citing economists' mistaken assertion that humans act rationally and the stereotype that welfare recipients are lazy that fueled the 1994 federal welfare reform effort. "Almost nobody challenged those assumptions, that's what got me," he said.

Pettigrew earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and taught at the University of North Carolina and Harvard before coming to UCSC in 1979. He retired from teaching in 1994 yet remains an active researcher and was recently appointed a senior fellow at Stanford University's Research Institute for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.


Editor's Note: To reach Thomas Pettigrew, please contact Jennifer McNulty in the UCSC Public Information Office at (831) 459-4399 or via e-mail at jmcnulty@ucsc.edu.