Almost 57 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his historic “I Have A Dream…” speech to a throng of 200,000 at the March on Washington. In perhaps the most iconic moment of the Civil Rights Era, King spoke of his dream that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Today, 66 years after Brown v. Board of Education, King’s words remain as noble as ever, yet sadly still closer to a dream than a reality in many parts of America, where resegregation of schools has taken root. More than half of the schoolchildren in the U.S. are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75% of students are either white or nonwhite. While the diversity of America’s schoolchildren overall has increased since King’s speech, entire school districts are becoming more racially distinct from one another.
Meanwhile, race relations in America appear to be getting worse. And efforts to desegregate schools and programs that make schools more diverse have and continue to be highly controversial undertakings. However, as we show in our new book, The Company We Keep, racially diverse settings in schools and the programs that help create them are critical to improving interracial relations, and in turn ultimately realizing King’s dream.
Our research, based on surveys and interview data on thousands of students who were teenagers in the mid-1990s, examines how school racial diversity affects the formation of interracial romantic and friendship ties. We find that teenagers of all racial groups are overwhelmingly more likely to have interracial friendships and romantic relationships if they attend schools that are more racially diverse.
The same students were also interviewed more than a decade later when they were young adults. We examined how attending racially diverse schools in adolescence was associated with having interracial ties as young adults. Encouragingly, we found that the positive effect of school racial diversity on the formation of interracial social ties persists into adulthood. People were much more likely to have close friends and romantic partners of a different race as young adults if they attended schools with students from different racial backgrounds. They were especially likely to have interracial ties as young adults if they had experienced an interracial friendship or romance in adolescence.
Remarkably, school diversity in adolescence has a durable and positive effect on interracial ties in young adulthood that is independent of other factors, such as dating someone of a different race or having a friend of another race in adolescence. In other words, individuals need not have interracial friendships or romantic relationships themselves to reap the long-term benefits of school racial diversity. Simply being exposed to students of other races is enough. These effects matter not only for whites, but also blacks, Latino/Hispanics, and Asian Americans.
The Census Bureau predicts that in 2045, racial minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the United States. In some states, like California, whites are already a numerical minority. While the racial diversity of youth has increased in recent decades, whites have become more segregated from blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in public schools. Our research demonstrates the long-lasting positive effects of diverse settings in schools on race relations, which will only become more important as America as a whole becomes more diverse.
Opponents of programs to promote diversity in schools, including the current occupants of the White House, would have you believe an evermore diverse America spells doom for our country. They argue affirmative action is reverse-racism.
To the contrary, our research suggests programs that enhance racial and ethnic diversity in schools are essential to bridging the divides in American society that have persisted since King’s day. Ultimately, making King’s dream come true simply requires having the courage to pursue it.
Sociologists Grace Kao (Yale University), Kara Joyner (Bowling Green State University) and Kelly Stamper Balistreri (Bowling Green State University) recently published The Company We Keep, which explores the current state of race relations in America by studying how diversity in schools impacts the prevalence of interracial friendships and relationships later in life.
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