The Impact of Race on Children’s Friendships

Girls playing outside
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In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. longed for the day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” While in 21st century America, King’s dream is certainly possible, more often than not Black children and white children remain strangers thanks to de facto segregation in the nation’s schools and neighborhoods.

Even in diverse communities, however, children of color and white children tend not to be close friends. What’s responsible for this trend? Studies reveal that children internalize society’s views on race relations, which has largely given them the idea that it’s best for people to “stick to their own kind.” The older children get, the more likely they are not to socialize closely with peers of a different race. This paints a relatively bleak picture for the future of race relations, but the good news is that by the time youth reach college they aren’t as quick to rule out people as friends on the basis of race.

Why Interracial Friendships Are Important

Cross-race friendships have a number of benefits for children, according to a study on the subject published in the Journal of Research on Childhood Education in 2011. “Researchers find that children who hold interracial friendships tend to have high levels of social competence and self-esteem,” according to study lead Cinzia Pica-Smith. “They are also socially skilled and tend to have more positive attitudes about racial differences than their peers who do not have interracial friendships.

Despite the benefits of interracial friendships, several studies have shown that even young children are more inclined to have intra-racial friendships than interracial ones and that cross-race friendships decrease as children age. “Children’s Perceptions of Interethnic and Interracial Friendships in a Multiethnic School Context,” Pica-Smith’s study of 103 children—including one group of kindergartners and first graders and another of fourth- and fifth-graders—found that younger children do have a more positive outlook on inter-group friendships than their older peers. In addition, children of color favor cross-racial friendships more than whites do, and girls do more than boys. Due to the positive impact cross-racial friendships have on race relations, Pica-Smith encourages educators to foster such friendships among the children in their classrooms.

Kids on Race

CNN’s report “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture” made it clear that some children hesitate to form cross-race friendships because they’ve picked up cues from society that “birds of a feather flock together.” Released in March 2012, the online report focused on the friendship patterns of 145 African-American and Caucasian children. One group of study subjects fell between the ages of 6 and 7 years old and a second group fell between the ages of 13 and 14 years old. When shown pictures of a Black child and a white child together and asked if the pair could be friends, 49 percent of young children said they could be while just 35 percent of teens said the same.

Moreover, young African-American children were far more likely than either young white children or white teens to believe that friendship between the youths in the picture was possible. Black teens, however, were just four percent more likely than white teens to think cross-race friendship between the youths in the picture was possible. This indicates that skepticism about cross-race friendships rises with age. Also of note is that white youths in majority Black schools were more likely than whites in majority white schools to view cross-race friendship as possible. Sixty percent of the former youths viewed interracial friendships favorably compared to just 24 percent of the latter.

Diversity Doesn't Always Result in Interracial Friendships

Attending a large, diverse school doesn't mean that children will be more likely to form cross-race friendships. A University of Michigan study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2013 found that race is a bigger factor in larger (and typically more diverse) communities. "The larger the school, the more racial segregation there is," says sociologist Yu Xie, one of the study's authors. Data on 4,745 students in grades 7-12 during the 1994-95 school year was collected for the study.

Xie explained that in smaller communities the number of potential friends is limited, making it more difficult for students to find a person who has the traits they want in a friend and shares their racial background as well. In larger schools, however, it's easier "to find someone who will meet other criteria for a friend plus be of the same race," Xie says. "Race plays a bigger role in a larger community because you can satisfy other criteria, but in a smaller school other factors dominate the decision who is your friend."

Interracial Friendships in College

While several reports indicate that interracial friendships wane with age, a study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Sociology found that first-year college students “are more likely to make friends with peers they share a dorm room or major with than they are to befriend those from similar racial backgrounds,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California at Los Angeles tracked the Facebook profiles of 1,640 students at an unnamed university to determine how they picked friends.

The study suggested students are more likely to become friends with peers they see often, peers from the same state or peers who attended similar types of high schools than they were to become friends with peers who simply shared their same cultural background. “Race is important in the end,” explained Kevin Lewis, one of the study’s authors, “but it’s nowhere near as important as we thought.”