Group Dynamics

February 01, 2003 3 min read
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Research shows it takes more than mixing to desegregate a school.

The racial boundaries are easily discernable in Brian Cellery’s hometown of Albany, New York: African Americans live on the north side, whites on the south. At Albany High School, where Cellery was a senior last year, those boundaries are replicated in the lunchroom, the hallways, and in after-school activities. “You could come from a school five states away and you would immediately see that it’s segregated,” he says. “In the hallways before class, you see large groups of white students, black students, and Latinos, separated by both race and neighborhood.”

Cellery’s observations reflect the reality at many U.S. high schools. Despite a decades-long attempt to end school segregation, a report published in the American Journal of Sociology finds that American middle and high school students still predominantly choose friends of the same race. “If all you’re doing is setting up a school system where you bring kids of different races together, you likely won’t get much substantive integration,” says James Moody, author of the study. “Students were almost twice as likely to choose a friend of the same race, and even after controlling for factors such as mixed-race extracurricular activities, students were still 25 percent more likely to select a same-race friend.”

Moody, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, gathered data in 2001 from students at more than 130 middle and high schools that had participated in the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. He asked them to list 10 friends and then looked at how their schools were organized, considering factors such as geographic region, socioeconomic profile, and whether court-ordered busing was in place.

He found that one of the most significant factors influencing interracial friendships is the heterogeneity level on campus. A school with a 50/50 split between races is the most likely candidate for student self-segregation. “When you have an even split between two races, it’s very easy to get an us-versus-them dynamic,” Moody explains. In addition, he discovered that multiple-grade interaction, academic tracking, and extracurricular activities affect integration. If students are free to socialize across grades, for example, it’s easier for them to segregate by race. And when academic tracks and extracurricular activities are segregated, friendships tend to be as well.

While Moody’s research paints an unfortunate picture of student life, it also suggests that schools can take steps to promote cross-racial friendships. For instance, inviting students to participate in sports or clubs they would not normally think of joining may change group dynamics elsewhere on campus, he suggests.

Joyce Smith, principal of Annapolis Senior High School in Maryland, certainly believes adult meddling can promote student mingling. Eight years ago, the animosity between whites and African Americans on her campus was palpable. “There had been a lot of tension in the school, a sense of unrest,” Smith recalls. “The kids told us they wanted to change.” So she created Team Day, a student-led day of workshops and skits about cultural differences, self-esteem, and other issues, held at a local park.

“It’s really a unity workshop,” explains 12th grader Justin Merrick, who’s helped plan the annual event twice. “You get to know people you never would have talked to, and you see friendships develop that probably never would have existed without it.” While the activity hasn’t eradicated self-segregation, administrators say it has reduced problems in a school with almost equal numbers of African American and white students.

More recently, Mix It Up At Lunch Day—created by Teaching Tolerance, a Mobile, Alabama-based organization that fights discrimination—seems to have met with some success. On November 21, 2,500 schools across the country encouraged students to eat lunch with classmates to whom they don’t normally talk. According to organizer Janelle Bell, teachers were so pleased with how the activity broke down social barriers, many schools are now planning to hold “mix it up” days on a monthly basis.

That’s exactly what educators should be doing, Moody believes. “Schools are designed,” he says, “to help build the nation we want by forming citizens—people of different backgrounds who work together to create things.”

—Karen Kelly


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