A PACK of hostile, young Negroes "square off" against members of a belligerent white street gang in a plush conference room in William James Hall. And the weapons used in the encounter aren't broken bottles and brass knuckles but racial prejudices and fears.
"Who are they? Older? They'll kill us. Make 'em younger ... real small, pygmies with eyes like poison darts. Why are they coming? They'll want to fight! We'll talk and let them sit in back of the room," members of the white gang said when told Negroes would soon join their group.
In contrast, the Negroes unconsciously adopted the role of the aggressor. "Whites aren't as good. The white people slide; we glide. We have natural born rhythm. They can't dance. Can't sing soul. We're naturally strong. And we got better girls."
Thomas J. Cottle '59, a section man for Harvard's group self-analysis course -- Social Relations 120 -- arranged the "rumble" as part of a project designed to explore racial tensions and anxieties created by integration and, especially, by school bussing. Always a civil rights activist, Cottle first became interested in the problems of integration while he belonged to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
He regards school bussing as "tremendously frightening for both races" because of the lack of preparation for the students involved. "The white kids become the 'home team' while Negroes imported from other neighborhoods can't help but feel alienated," he said.
To investigate these problems, Cottle used the controversial methods of Soc Rel 120 with groups of volunteer Negro and white students from local high schools. Even "sophisticated" Harvard and Radcliffe students often have found this course as painfully self-revealing as it was illuminating. Many educators believed the self-analytic group could not be used outside of colleges.
But, on the basis of this experiment, which was performed last spring, Cottle has claimed, "The fundamental idea of Soc Rel 120 can definitely be used successfully with non-college groups, and even without professional group leaders."
He explains, "What do people remember most about school? Lectures? Of course not. Discussions, where students can articulate their ideas--especially when some kind of moderator or leader is present--are the most memorable and the most valuable of all learning situations."
"Today's teachers must begin to realize the importance of feeling; the purely intellectual approach to learning is only second best," he said.
The experiment was performed with the help of three undergraduates--David C. Rice '67, Leonard H. Saphier '68, and Joseph H. Pleck '68--and a Soc Rel graduate student, Patrick T. Vilani, each of whom led a series of 12 discussion meetings. These leaders, all white, received only a minimum of training for the sessions, which were taped--with the participants' knowledge--and observed by members of the Soc Rel Department. Fifty high school students took part, some of whom were known teenage "gang" members.
COTTLE tried to re-create the two bussing procedures most often used by cities, in the discussion groups' make-up.
Groups integrated at the first meeting simulated the conditions created by the "September plan," which throws students of both races together in the white schools with instructions "to get along."
In other groups, Negroes and whites met separately for the first six weeks and together for the latter half of the project. This was similar to the "June plan," presumably the more humane of the two, in which students discuss with their teachers, for a short time, the approaching start of integration.
One of the major problems, according to Cottle, was establishing an open atmosphere for both races within the framework of white authority presented by the leaders and the Harvard meeting place. "Are we guinea pigs? Is everything confidential? Are you going to write all this up?" some of the students asked.
Cottle thinks the problems of racial hatred are intensified by sexual anxieties, especially common in adolescents. "Imagine the complexity of the relationship between a 16-year-old Negro girl and a 20-year-old white group leader," he said. "We have found that much of what was considered 'racial' problems are really sexual ones: the adjustment of white girls to Negro boys, for example."
Leaders participated as little as possible. The situation forced members of the group to create a flexible "society" of their own. Certain individuals naturally began to guide the discussion. Others questioned why certain group members "never opened their mouths."
The leader's refusing to dominate the situation caused the group members to learn to live and function together peaceably without outside guidance. They knew they were responsible for their acts. They realized they wouldn't be able to blame the leader if conflicts arose.
"We're just like the United Nations and he [the leader] is like a silent Secretary-General. What could happen if he weren't here? There would be anarchy," a girl in an integrated group commented in one of the first sessions.
Most of their talks had racial significance, although the students did not usually realize this when they began discussing various issues. They learned, for example, that their views on Vietnam and lunar exploration had racially symbolic as well as literal content.
"The war in Vietnam," Cottle has concluded, "is somewhere in the American consciousness, a racial struggle. We would not be so ready to use napalm on whites as we are on the 'yellow' Vietnamese."
In almost all the groups, the students, themselves, chose Vietnam for the first discussion. Many students saw the struggle in terms of the problems of racial conflict:
"It's the good white against the bad colored. It's the pure and powerful . . . against the vile and unclean troublemakers. It's racial violence," one student said.
In general, Negroes viewed the war as simply an extension of domestic racial prejudice to an international level. Each time these Negro students heard reports of large numbers of Viet Cong killed, they identified not with the American soldier but with the "enemy."
Exploration of the moon also provided a good topic for discussion ultimately connected with integration. One Negro boy said, "Aliens probably look like us, but maybe they're a bit bigger, with an extra finger ... maybe just a glob of air."
In this situation, through the articulation of previously hidden fantasies, whites had the opportunity to learn that, on another planet, they might be the aliens, the intruders, the "Negroes." With no aid from the leader, the group members saw this implication from the boy's speculations about moon creatures.
In addition, whites learned that there is nothing intrinsically superior about having any particular skin color. And Negroes expressed the opinion that, somewhere else in the Universe, black skins might be more desirable than white ones.
PERSONAL relationships among group members, apparently aided by the leader's staying in the background, developed differently in the various groups.
Two boys, Negro and white, slowly fashioned a friendship deep and open enough to bring together an entire integrated group, according to Cottle. The mere presence of girls kept their closeness safe from the difficulties related to homosexual anxieties, which arose among the Negro and white gang boys.
Cottle has recently published a complete report on the experiment in Psychology Today. He drew five main conclusions from the data:
First, the self-analytic group, to some extent, is able to cut through the defenses created when Negro and white students meet in an integrated school situation for the first time. The almost immediate realization that they were "like the U.N." by the students supports this. This point seems to indicate that both the September and June plans inadequately prepare students for integration, though the second plan is the better of the two.
Second, meaningful interaction between groups and their leaders resulted when young, non-professionals guided the discussions.
Third, keeping groups segregated allows for direct and open confrontation of realities and fantasies tied to integration even when the leader is white. The gang boys' admissions to the leader about their racial fears is an example.
Fourth, many integration problems are really problems of sexual adjustment between opposing sexes of different colors.
Lastly, the self-analytic technique can be meaningful for lower class and young adolescents. The method's success can be shown best by the result of a girl's attempt to "act out" her sense of racial perspective in an integrated group.
She began by turning out the light in the hall (where several students were talking) and leaving on the light in the room. Then she reversed the process.
Students--Negro and white--realized that everyone is black in the dark. This girl, in a few seconds, forcibly conveyed the superficiality of skin color much more effectively than most teachers could in a year.
"Who are they? Older? They'll kill us. Make 'em younger...real small, pygmies with eyes like poison darts. Why are they coming? They'll want to fight! We'll talk and let them sit in back of the room," members of the white gang said when told Negroes would soon join their group.