The image of black and white children hand-in-hand is possibly the most well-known and most often quoted line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the years, black and white youngsters playing together has evolved from a civil-rights leader’s vision of racial equality to a clothing retailer’s marketing campaign, and in the process spawned a cultural meme—signaling everything from innocence and hope to a world free of interpersonal racism. Yet black and white childhood friendships, an inspiring notion, rarely happen organically.
According to a new study of elementary- and middle-school students, teacher behaviors may shape how students select and maintain friends and affect the longevity of interracial friendships. The study, led by researchers with New York University's Steinhardt School, finds that as students move through a single school year, from the fall through the spring semester, their number of cross-racial friendships decreases. What’s more, students’ perceptions of their teachers—who may treat children in the same class differently, for example—influenced the rate of growth in same-race friendships from the fall to the spring.
Elise Cappella, an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU and the study’s lead author, said the group started out with a common understanding, supported by popular wisdom and established research, that as young people approach and enter adolescence, their likelihood of forming friendships across racial and ethnic groups decreases. “We wanted to try to understand what might be influencing that change … and we wanted to go beyond simply understanding the opportunity piece [greater numbers of diverse peers] to understanding what parts of this social process or the teaching practices might make a difference in the changes that occur.”