By Third Grade, Black Students Who Self Segregate Are More Popular

We have this image that friendships in schools today are all High School Musical HSM

The odds of a white high-schooler having a best friend of another race are actually only about 8 percent. And the story isn't much better for minorities, either: for black kids, 85 percent of their best friends are black, too.

The long-accepted solution to this problem has been school diversity. But the science is quite clear that this solution has failed to fix the problem: as schools get more diverse, kids just tend to self-segregate more, so kids in more diverse schools end up not having more friends of other races. Kids in diverse schools do not necessarily have better racial attitudes, and commonly have worse.

Fifty-five years after Brown v. Board, why do kids choose to self-segregate? Why do they accept it?

In NEWSWEEK magazine this week, we suggested that part of the problem stems from white parents' refusal to talk to their young children about race and ethnicity. This inadvertently teaches children that race is a taboo topic.

Now let's talk about an overlooked factor at work on the black side of the divide ─ popularity.

Popularity is almost never part of the conversation society has about race. But if you think about it for a moment, all kids are trying to develop an identity. Race and ethnicity are part of the identity equation, but how popular you are and whether other kids like you are also part of every child's emerging identity. Most kids want a taste of popularity ─ or at least they don't want to be unpopular ─ and when popularity interacts with race there are some surprising results.

That's according to a forthcoming paper by Philip Rodkin and Travis Wilson, scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Rodkin and Wilson surveyed 757 kids at nine elementary schools scattered across central Illinois.The kids were quite young; most were in the third and fourth grades, with a handful in the second and fifth grades. This provided Rodkin and Wilson a chance to see how social forces interacted with racial identity at an early age, when it was still in the formation stage. While we think of popularity as a phenomenon of junior highs and high schools, it's clearly measurable soon after elementary school begins.

The classrooms ranged in their diversity ─ in some, blacks were a small minority; in others, the clear majority. (Some of the classes also included Hispanic children; however, in their first analysis of the data, the scholars report only on the white and black children, since they make up most of the children surveyed.)

In each classroom, the researchers asked kids to name their best friends, to list who else was in their group of friends, and identify other kids who hung out in groups together. Then they asked kids to say who they liked to play with, who they didn't like. They got the lowdown on which kids in class were the most popular, and who were the outcasts. The kids told them who was really nice and helpful, and which kids were mean, spreading rumors or getting into fights all the time.

Importantly, none of Rodkin's questions had anything to do with the kids' race or ethnicity. There was nothing in study that should have primed the children to think about race ─ their own or the other kids. (The scholars learned the kids' ethnicity from school records; they didn't ask the kids.)

Nevertheless, the scholars are finding stunning racial patterns in the kids' responses.

They found that black kids who self-segregate ─ who only hang out with other blacks ─ are more popular than black kids who have white friends.

This means that an average black student could increase her popularity by hanging out with other black students. Meanwhile, if she chooses to have white friends, she could put her popularity at risk. Many kids don't have the social capital or confidence to make this tradeoff.

When the scholars ran the analysis a second time,substituting how much kids were liked for how popular they were, a similar troubling pattern emerged. Black kids who self-segregated were liked by more black children. Having white friends decreased a black child's "likeability" ─ at least in the eyes of other black children.

For white children, in contrast, self-segregating hurt their popularity.

Now, self-protection is the traditional explanation offered for why black children self-segregate. Fearing inevitable discrimination and rejection, they withdraw to feel safe. But if that was the whole story, self-segregation would vanish in more diverse schools. Rodkin found that this dynamic interplay between popularity and self-segregation didn't disappear when black kids were in the majority ─ in fact it increased.

So withdrawal might be what initially triggers black children to self-segregate, but once the social rules are in place ─ certainly by third grade, according to this study ─ the forces of popularity help perpetuate the phenomenon. Black children are rewarded, socially, for avoiding white kids.

At first glance, this research paints a depressing picture. But its insights provide an important clue for how to address school self-segregation. It's telling us that school interventions need to target the popular kids, first and foremost. All kids key off the social cues that popular kids emanate. The popular kids should be pulled aside and recruited to set a good example. Functionally, that would be asking them to put their popularity at risk, but many have the surplus of social influence to pull it off. And once they set a new tone, others would follow.

Rodkin, too, is not depressed by his results. Overall, black students were more popular than white students. And both the white and black kids in his study agreed which black kids were popular. "Popularity is a social construction," explains Rodkin. "People collectively agree that you're on top ─ which kids have influence, which kids set the social standards." Twenty or thirty years ago, no black kids would have been seen as popular by white kids ─ and few black kids would have had social influence. Black kids would not have been setting the social standard, schoolwide. Now they are.

Maybe it's time to put that social influence toward some good.

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