How Friendships Can Reduce Racial Prejudice, and What Schools Can Do to Help  

Sometimes it seems like the older we get, the harder it is to make friends.  In second grade, if there was somebody I thought was cool, all I had to do was go up to them and ask, “do you want to be friends?” and boom - instant BFFs.  When we were younger, we probably didn’t think very much about the specifics of who our friends were, like whether or not they were from the same socioeconomic background as us, practiced the same religion, or were from the same cultural or racial/ethnic community.  We probably cared more about whether or not potential friends liked to play the same games, eat the same food, and had a personality similar to ours. This preference for liking people who are like us is known as homophily (McPherson, Cook, & Smith-Lovin, 2001).  While homophily certainly concerns behavioral characteristics like the ones I described, it can often extend to features of identity as well, such as gender, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity - particularly in adolescence.  So common that there has even been a book analyzing the phenomenon (Tatum, 2017), homophily by race/ethnicity seems to be especially common in adolescence.  Indian American kids are friends with other Indian Americans, Black Americans befriend other Black Americans, Korean Americans spend time hanging out with other Korean Americans. 

One of the consequences of exclusively spending time with people like us - and particularly people from the same cultural community as us - is that we often do not get an opportunity to step outside of what we know and learn new things about people who have different lived experiences.  When paired with structural inequities and problematic and discriminatory messaging in the media, this can end up resulting in prejudice toward and intolerance of people who aren’t members of our in-group. 

Fortunately, a long tradition of research shows that friendships between people of different ethnicities (i.e., “cross-ethnic friendships”) can help to reduce prejudice and improve relations between different groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).  This research is founded on intergroup contact theory, which posits that contact between two people of different groups can help to reduce prejudice (Allport, 1954).  For example, through interacting with Asian people, White people’s attitudes toward Asians should improve.  We expect that these interactions should be especially effective when both individuals are of equal social standing, can cooperate with each other toward achieving a common goal, and are supported by important authority figures to interact positively with each other.  Because friendships make the likelihood of meeting these “optimal” conditions of contact, research finds that they are especially effective at reducing prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006) over other forms of contact, such as that you might have with neighbors or coworkers.  For instance, when two people enter a friendship (i.e., a mutual relationship desired by both parties), they may be likely to view each other as equals.  Moreover, friends often work with each other to achieve their goals, such as studying together to pass a test or relying on each other while playing basketball to win the game.  Authority figures, such as teachers, are also likely to be supportive of their students building friendships across group lines.

One of the biggest downsides of this research, though, is that time and time again, scientists find that people from particular groups are far more likely to benefit from having cross-ethnic friendships than others.  Specifically, White Americans, or members of otherwise societally dominant groups, experience a significantly larger reduction in their prejudice toward ethnic minorities as a function of friendship, than vice versa (Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005; Feddes, Noack, & Rutland, 2009).  This finding even extends to friendships between adolescents who are members of different ethnic minority groups; while Asian college students’ attitudes toward Black Americans are significantly improved when they have Black friends, Black college students’ attitudes toward Asian Americans are unaffected by friendships with Asians (Bikmen, 2011). 

To better understand why we might observe these imbalanced effects, Binder and colleagues (2009) offer a sound explanation: due to differing experiences with discrimination, and structural inequality in the United States, White Americans may be much more likely to perceive their minority peers as of “equal status” (Allport, 1954), than ethnic minorities.  In other words, ethnic minority Americans might be especially aware of, and have experienced first-hand, racism and mistreatment due to the color of their skin, and therefore approach friendships with White peers with caution (called hypervigilance; Major & O’Brien, 2005).  Similarly, Black Americans may be cautious when developing friendships with Asian peers in light of past experiences of anti-black prejudice experienced from Asians, or because of stereotypes like the model minority myth that position Asians as “better” than other marginalized groups (more information here).

These findings beg the question, what happens when youth from two different minority groups who have more similar lived experiences become friends?  More specifically, we wanted to understand how friendships between Black and Latino youth might affect their attitudes toward each other.  The Black and Latino communities are two that have historically been grouped together in terms of similarity of certain lived experiences, such as STEM achievement in college and de facto segregation through school practices like tracking (Oyserman & Lewis, 2017; Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014).  Simultaneously, there exists an established established history of solidarity between these two communities when political action and activism are concerned (e.g., Enck-Wanzer, Morales, & Oliver-Velez, 2010; Bauman, 2007).  We reasoned that, because of these histories and experiences, Black and Latino youth might be more likely to benefit equally from building friendships with each other, in contrast with past findings on White-minority friendships.   

To test this hypothesis, we followed over 2,500 Black and Latino middle school students from sixth through eighth grade to determine whether or not Black students’ attitudes toward Latinos improved as a result of friendships with Latino peers, and vice versa (Rastogi & Juvonen, 2019).  In spring of each school year, we asked students to report the names of their “good friends” in their grade at school, and using student surveys identified specific friendships between Black and Latino youth.  We also identified whether or not students had any stable friendships, or friendships lasting from one year to the next (e.g., from sixth to seventh grade).  To measure prejudice, students completed a series of questions regarding their attitudes toward Black, White, Latino, and Asian people, in order to determine how much they liked to engage in specific behaviors – like eating lunch together or sitting together on the school bus – with peers from each group.  In our analyses, we found that the more Black friends that Latino youth had across the three years of middle school, the better their attitudes were toward Black Americans by the end of eighth grade.  Similarly, the more Latino friends Black youth had, the better their attitudes toward Latinos.  Most importantly, we found that these friendships were equally beneficial for Black and Latino adolescents.  Said differently, the degree to which Black adolescents’ prejudice toward Latinos was reduced when they had Latino friends was similar to the degree to which Latino adolescents’ prejudice toward Black Americans was reduced by having Black friends.  And, we found that it was especially beneficial for teens to have stable friendships with ethnic out-group peers, or friendships that last over multiple school years.

These findings have pretty big insights for schools, and for future research.  For one, research usually finds that the more cross-ethnic friends somebody has, the bigger the effects on their attitudes (e.g., Levin, van Laar, & Sidanius, 2003).  But what happens if a school or neighborhood isn’t very ethnically diverse?  If having even one stable friendship is just as effective as multiple, but unstable, friendships, we don’t have to feel as helpless when schools are not ethnically diverse.  Of course, we should constantly be making efforts to desegregate neighborhoods and reduce income inequality (one of the biggest reasons for neighborhood segregation).  In the meantime, however, if we can work to facilitate even a handful of friendships that are lasting between kids from different backgrounds, we can make strides toward reducing prejudice and making school environments more welcoming for students from marginalized backgrounds.  For example, schools might try implementing mixed-ability classrooms, which show superiority in student learning and achievement over academic tracking and increase opportunities for students from different backgrounds to befriend each other (Oakes, 2005; Chiu, Chow, & Joh, 2017).

Second, the fact that friendships between Black and Latino adolescents don’t replicate the same imbalanced effects of friendships between White and ethnic minority adolescents, and Black and Asian adolescents, means that there might be something special about the relationship between the Black and Latino communities.  While each racial/ethnic community has a history of competition with every other community, we know that Black and Latino youth have more similar experiences in schools than different (e.g., Cameron and Heckman 2001; Monzó 2016; Oakes 2005).  This means that if schools can help students from different backgrounds see the ways in which they may actually be similar, friendships across group lines may be more equitable.  One way to do this might be to have comprehensive history education, where - rather than focusing almost exclusively on one group - teachers educate their students about all marginalized groups’ histories of resistance and resilience.  For instance, there are a lot of historical examples of solidarity between the Black and Asian communities in the United States, (e.g., the Dalit Panthers, Grace Lee Boggs) and between the Latino and Asian communities (e.g., the United Farm Workers of America).  By teaching about these histories and breaking down harmful stereotypes and ideologies (e.g., anti-blackness, and surrounding immigrant groups like Latinos and Asians) schools can do their part in making the learning environment a safer and more welcoming place for students to come together.


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