“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” An Analysis of How Adolescents Form Friendships
In American schools the ethnic composition has shifted drastically in the last decade and urban areas have seen the changes more than any other area (Echols and Graham 462). With this shift in demographic it is to be assumed that the nature and behavior of adolescents in these new environments would change. More diversity within the school would produce more diversity in the student’s social lives. In actuality, studies show that there is a preference among children to form friendships with those who share the same race or ethnicity as they do. With the exposure to more diversity and different cultures why are adolescents reaffirming the age-old adage “birds of a feather flock together”?
Dr. Beverly Tatum an expert in the development of racial identity, has insight as to why children may cluster together and seek those more familiar to them during the many stages of adolescence. When children begin to explore themselves and their many identities, race becomes the most prominent. Tatum says specifically “As children enter adolescence, they begin to explore the question of identity, asking ‘Who am I? Who can I be?’ in ways they have not done before” (Tatum 52). When children look to define who they are themselves they see their reflection in their peers. For this theory Leslie Echols, doctor of developmental psychology and Sandra Graham, doctor of education attribute the principles of propinquity and homophily. Propinquity being described as “individuals are more likely to associate with others who are readily available to them” and homophily as “contact is more likely to occur between individuals who are similar to each other than between individuals who are dissimilar” (Echols and Graham 462). With these terms in mind, it seems that friendship formation is based on how available and alike those around you are.
Aside from propinquity and homophily, in “What Is a Good Friend: A Qualitative Analysis of Desired Friendship Qualities” written by then student Christopher P. Roberts-Griffin the subject of attractiveness is brought into question based on the psychological assumptions made when we see those that are attractive: “Physically attractive people are judges to be kinder, stronger, more outgoing, more interesting, more exciting dates, more nurturing, and better people.” (Roberts-Griffin 4). This premise holds true when you look at the social structure and hierarchy of schools starting predominately in middle school. For instance, in regard to prepubescent children Dr. Tatum states “If you walk into racially mixed elementary schools, you will often see young children of diverse racial backgrounds playing with one another…crossing racial boundaries with an ease uncommon in adolescence” (Tatum 52). Based on this quote one begins to wonder, where is the divide? What exactly changes? While Tatum herself attributes the specific change to puberty and the urge to secure an identity, Echols and Graham associate this change with the simplicity of relating to someone based on race and ethnicity (Echols and Graham 462). If put into an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation more than likely as a comforting mechanism the children are going to seek out another person they share something with, outside of gender, race or ethnicity is the easiest to distinguish.
Although there is diversity present there may be issues with the ability to meet people outside of your racial group due to the way classes are set up. Graham and Echols describe it as “…academic tracking can restrict the amount of intergroup exposure students experience” (Graham and Echols 464). This being taken into account, there is not necessarily a prejudice or preference toward one or the other, just a difference in availability. Even with diversity playing such a large role and is very well worth taking into consideration, there are other aspects that feed into socialization. Roberts-Griffin speaks on the role attractiveness plays and the perception of attractive people when regarding friendship “Physically attractive people are judged to be kinder, stronger, more outgoing, more interesting, more exciting dates, more exciting, nurturing, and better people.” (Roberts-Griffin 4). Those who are attractive are generally treated better and more popular due to the association with desirable traits.
The research attributes friendship formation to proximity and similarity which can possibly be traced back through history. Graham and Echols mention academic tracking which can be explored through a sociological lens to highlight the societal functions that aided the segregation of academic programs. Outside of friendship formation and overall exposure the question of learning quality arises. The intention of Brown v Board of Education was to eliminate the inequalities in different districts dependent on race but since then have we actually progressed? In some aspect I assume we have, we are more diverse as a nation but the composition and quality of our public schools are still falling short and more than likely, race plays a major role. Although the research does give implications that there is a greater root cause, there is no exploration of the historical background associated with multiracial friendship formation specifically related to integration and desegregation.
Given the information provided through the research and my own experiences through my own schooling and conversations with people I have encountered during this semester, there are very drastic differences in diversity depending on the area in which you live. My graduating class had 3 white kids whereas my suitemates only knew of one black person in their entire town. While we are becoming more diverse as a nation, there are still drastic differences between most schools in American and the schools conveniently used for studies on diversity. From my standpoint, the contributing factor is more than likely residential areas and the ability of people of color to live in areas and the use of school districts that although may not be ill-intended, keep schools form being genuinely diverse and equal.
When schools were desegregated in 1954 there was not necessarily immediate action that suddenly brought two groups of people that were historically regarded to in completely different fashions together all at once. However, following that court ruling there was a pattern discovered that brought notice to the social structures that created inequality and deprived students academically. This is closely observed in the journal “City Limits on Racial Equality: The Effects of City-Suburb Boundaries on Public-School Desegregation, 1968-1967” by David R. James, sociological professor at Harvard University. James notes that most studies on desegregation neglect the possibility of political involvements impact through this statement: “Yet, case studies suggest that school desegregative efforts are greatly affected by the quality of nearby public- and private-school’s systems.” (964). Meanwhile, Reynolds Farley and Alma F. Taeuber of the University of Michigan feel as though “shortage of information on a problem of such importance has fostered a variety of conflicting assertions and speculations.” (898). While these two positions conflict there still stands the issue of desegregation in schools and the impact it has on students’ education and ability to become well-versed in diversity.
Surprisingly, sources suggest that research on diversity benefits state “diversity the documented benefits to low-income students, but the emerging recognition that middle- and upper- class students benefit in diverse classrooms.” (Stuart Wells et al. 18). Showcasing that diversity is not one-sided or benefiting only one party. Being around those less fortunate or that have experiences outside of your own are extremely important for a sense of empathy and wisdom among student. Through my ability to meet and befriend children from countries in civil war, refugees, and people who have experienced communism I myself have become more aware and tolerant of those different from me. The research illustrates that diversity in educational environments is beneficial to all involved.
There was initially issue taken up with efforts to integrate schools based on the difficulty in children getting to the schools and children were often bussed across town in order to reach the superior schools. The authors of “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students” and members of the Teachers College Columbia point this out by stating Federal judges ordered school children to travel across town to attend schools to achieve racial balance, giving parents no say in the matter. Families rebelled.” (Stuart Wells et al. 18). When desegregation occurred, there was no plan in place on how to integrate these facilities without making one group of children travel to an unfamiliar area. What is most striking to me is that the goal was not to bring the quality of those schools where minorities were the majority to the standard of their white counterparts, but to throw them into an unknown and unchartered territory to make diversity occur in the most inorganic fashion possible. The children of those families that rebelled to the uncomfortable and in some instances unsafe solution provided by the supreme court were forced to continue to go to schools that were still separate and unequal.
With there being a lack of action on the state end of integration, federal courts began to implement plans that would move students from one residential area to another (Farley and Taeuber 903). This was due to the residential issues associated with schools, before desegregation there were areas that typically housed blacks, and areas that housed whites. Once desegregation occurred it became more of an issue of getting to the integrated school rather than being accepted. Residential segregation has much farther history and is an issue we still face in America due to the differences in wages and opportunities for social mobility amongst minorities. “School system internal factors and community characteristics, such as residential segregation, income level, and the availability of private schools also affect public-school segregation.” (James 965). These factors are still crucial present day and tie into the overall makeup of the schools that are discussed earlier in the paper that supposedly defy the suggestion of the everlasting effects of segregation. While children may be able to cross racial barriers, and have friends outside of their race, the quality of their education is still dependent on the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood in which they attend school.
Through my process and uncovering this research I have been propelled into an interest in all aspects of the educational experience of children of color and the quality of the education they receive. While diversity remains pivotal in the evolution of adolescents as both students and members of society, there are far too many similarities between the past and present when we look at the public-school system. Desegregation, with its’ honest intentions just fell short in many arenas. The prioritization of desegregation being integration and not quality of education received regardless of an institutions racial composition.
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Leslie Echols, and Sandra Graham. “Birds of a Different Feather: How Do Cross-Ethnic Friends
Flock Together?” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, 2013, pp. 461–488. JSTOR,
Roberts-Griffin, Christopher P. “What Is a Good Friend: A Qualitative Analysis of Desired
Friendship Qualities.” Penn McNair Research Journal: Vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 2011.
Stuart Wells, Amy et al. "How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All
Students." Education Digest, vol. 82, no. 1, Sept. 2016, pp. 17-24. EBSCOhost,
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