By Heather Tirado Gilligan
Cross-ethnic friendships may make young people feel safer at school, according to a study released today.
Researchers at UCLA and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands looked at friendships between Latino and African American students at ethnically diverse middle schools in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. They found that students who reported cross-ethnic friendships also reported feeling less vulnerable, less lonely and less victimized by peers than students who didn’t have friends outside of their ethnic group.
The study, which appears in the journal Child Development, included a total of 66 classrooms at 10 schools that the researchers classified as diverse. The study focused on the sixth grade and the average age of students who participated was 11.5 years old.
People are most likely to form friendships with people in their racial or ethnic groups, but in more diverse settings, they are more likely to form interracial friendships.
These relationships have unique benefits, previous research suggests. “Cross-ethnic friendships,” the authors write, “have been linked to better attitudes about others [and] more positive regard…by others.” People with cross-ethnic friendships are less likely to tolerate the exclusion of others from a group and more likely to have strong leadership skills.
Despite the benefits of these friendships and growing diversity in the U.S., they note, most studies to date have looked at friendships between Whites and minority ethnic groups. Their study suggests that previous findings also hold true for friendships between minority ethnic groups.
While the study used the number of White and Asian students to determine school diversity, there were too few students from those ethnic groups to allow the researchers to draw conclusions about them.
The authors caution that it is too simplistic to suggest that diverse classrooms will inevitably result in more cross-ethnic friendships. The atmosphere of the school, such as attitudes toward multiculturalism and a sense of order in classrooms are also important, as is the academic atmosphere of the school.
“Diverse schools in which academic tracking is widely used,” researchers also note, “can limit the mixing opportunities of students if some groups (Asians and Whites) are more likely to be placed in higher tracks, whereas other groups (Latinos and African Americans) are more likely to be placed in lower academic tracks.” Diverse schools that use academic tracking are actually less likely to see cross-racial friendships, they add.