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Racial Diversity and Friendship Groups in College: What the Research Tells Us
Anthony Lising Antonio, Assistant Professor, School of Education, Stanford University


As we approach a new millennium, American higher education continues to experience rapid racial and ethnic diversification of its student body. Demographic projections show that increasing ethnic and racial diversity will continue beyond the year 2000. Despite these changes, there continues to be a lack of empirical research on some of the most basic developmental issues facing college students in these multicultural contexts.

For example, many administrators and higher education leaders such as Harvard President Neil Rudenstine have embraced the growing diversity on their campuses, asserting that a racially diverse student body is necessary for preparing students to be citizens in a multicultural society. Conservative critics of the university, on the other hand, point to reports of increasingly tense racial climates and racial self-segregation among students. They maintain that such "balkanized" environments are producing students with greater levels of racial intolerance and ethnocentrism. These rather polarized views on what could be termed the "civic" outcomes of college in a multicultural environment co-exist, in part, because of our limited knowledge of student development in a racially diverse college setting.

In a recent study of one diverse university, I set out to understand diversity at the most intimate level--among students' best friends on campus. I investigated the extent to which students perceive racial balkanization and whether such perceptions reflect actual friendship patterns. Next I asked whether racial and ethnic diversity in a student's friendship group plays any role in the development of that student's racial understanding and tolerance, cultural awareness, or cross-cultural interactions beyond the friendship group.

Diverse Campus, Diverse Friendships

In measuring the diversity of friendship groups and their developmental effects, I conducted a longitudinal study of a fairly diverse university. The undergraduate student body included students who were approximately 40% white, 35% Asian American, 16% Latino, 6% African American, and just over 1% Native American. I conducted a follow-up survey of third-year students who were previously surveyed as freshmen in 1994 and collected specific information pertaining to experiences within their friendship groups. With a response rate of 31%, my final sample included some 638 students.

The initial question for this study was simply a descriptive one. Do students view their campus as racially balkanized? The data collected in this study strongly suggest they do. Over 90% of students in this cohort agreed that students predominantly cluster by race and ethnicity on campus. At the same time, however, only a small majority (52%) said that students rarely socialize across racial lines. These results suggest that a look into the racial makeup of the interpersonal environment of friendship groups may describe a picture that is quite different from generalized campus perceptions.

The racial and ethnic diversity or homogeneity of friendship groups was determined by analyzing the racial and ethnic makeup of the friendship group as identified by each respondent. The racial diversity of each student's friendship group was categorized as one of the following: 1) Homogeneous -- the largest racial/ethnic group makes up 100% of the friendship group; 2) Predominantly one race/ethnicity -- the largest racial/ethnic group makes up 75 – 99% of the friendship group; 3) Majority one race/ethnicity -- the largest racial/ethnic group makes up 51 – 74% of the friendship group; 4) No majority -- the largest racial/ethnic group makes up 50% or less of the friendship group.

Just 17%, or about one in six students, report having racially and ethnically homogeneous friendship groups. Homogeneous groups considerably outnumber groups with predominantly one race or ethnicity, and together the two types of groups account for over one-quarter of the sample. The most common friendship group on campus, however, is racially and ethnically mixed, such that no racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority. Almost half the sample (46%) described friendship groups of this type.

African American students were the most likely to report racially or ethnically homogeneous friendship groups, and correspondingly, they were the least likely to have friendship groups that lack any majority racial or ethnic group. Nearly one in three white students also reported having racially homogeneous friendship groups, although one would expect such a result, given that whites constitute the most numerous of the nine largest ethnic groups at the university. Japanese American and Filipino students, on the other hand, were the least likely of all groups in the sample to have a homogeneous set of best friends and the most likely to report the most racially and ethnically diverse friendship groups.

The preceding results clearly indicate that, at the level of student friendship groups, racial and ethnic balkanization is not a dominant, overall campus characteristic. Among a particular group of students, African Americans, same-race friendships may be much more common, but generally the data show campus-wide diversity among friendships. What is clearly evident, however, is that perceptions of ethnic and racial clustering do not necessarily reflect students' interpersonal experiences. Indeed, when comparing perceptions of balkanization among students with more or less diverse friendship groups, there is no difference. Regardless of the racial and ethnic diversity of a student's best friends, students on this multicultural campus still "see" segregation.

Diverse Friendships and Student Development

I looked at the following potential outcomes of diverse friendship groups: interracial interaction outside the friendship group, commitment to racial understanding, and gains in cultural awareness.

Controlling for important background characteristics including gender, socio-economic status, and the racial diversity of pre-college friendship groups, I found that friendship group diversity was positively associated with both interracial interaction outside the friendship group and a stronger commitment to racial understanding.

In the former analysis, the effect of friendship group diversity appeared to be "direct." That is, the effect remains significant even after controlling for important behavioral correlates to interracial interaction such as engaging in conversations about discrimination and ethnic identity/ culture. In other words, interracial friendships and general interracial interaction tend to go together. Furthermore, I found that these diverse friendships were cultivated early, generally during the first year in college as residents in the dormitories. Students who formed friendships in fraternities and sororities, on the other hand, tended to have more racially and ethnically homogeneous friendship groups.

Diversity in students' friendship groups also appears to affect commitment to racial understanding, but in an indirect manner. Students who had racially diverse friendships were more likely to engage in interracial interactions beyond that circle of friends, and that interaction contributed to greater commitments to racial understanding. Interestingly, friendship group diversity exhibited no significant contribution to gains in cultural awareness. One friendship group characteristic, level of materialism, contributed negatively to gains in cultural awareness, while two behavioral measures, engaging in interracial interaction outside the friendship group and participating in an ethnic student organization, were associated with positive gains in cultural awareness.

Perceptions and Campus Climate

The multivariate results of this study highlight one positive aspect to the diversification of the college campus, the diversification of friendship groups. Racial and ethnic diversity in friendship groups not only appears to be common on a multicultural campus, but the diversity also appears to contribute to additional socialization across race and to the development of racial understanding on campus. Similar to the study of diversity at the University of California--Berkeley by Troy Duster in 1991, however, students in this study believe their campus to be racially segregated. When interviewed, they were able to identify specifically the physical balkanization of ethnic groups in various locations of the campus.

Interviews also revealed that students with diverse friendship groups frequently thought of themselves as the exceptions in an otherwise racially divided student community. Perceptions of the campus racial climate, therefore, are important to consider to the extent that negative perceptions may discourage socialization across race, the formation of diverse friendships, and the developmental benefits gained from those friendships.

Findings from this study suggest that students' perceptions of diversity may differ quite strikingly from their actual interpersonal experiences of diversity. This discrepancy highlights a tremendous opportunity to improve campus racial climates and reduce perceptual barriers to interracial interaction. On many campuses, numerous opportunities already exist for students to socialize with someone of a different race or ethnicity. The primary challenge of a multicultural campus community is to create a climate that encourages students to take advantage of these opportunities. At the very least, we need to create climates that do not inhibit or discourage interracial interaction. Peeling back the surface layers of student interaction illuminates the realities of student life beneath the images of racial segregation and division. By communicating the actual nature of student interactions, campus communities can reduce perceptual barriers to interracial interaction and promote more cross-racial friendships.


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Wheaton College

Wheaton College



The preceding results clearly indicate that, at the level of student friendship groups, racial and ethnic balkanization is not a dominant, overall campus characteristic [but] students on this multicultural campus still "see" segregation.



Communication tips

Data on friendship groups that are racially and ethnically mixed counters popular perceptions about dominant self-segregation on campuses, and can undermine opponents of affirmative action who assert that diverse student bodies are unimportant since students do not "mix" on campuses, anyway. When opponents of affirmative action make these arguments, consider asking seniors or recent graduates to counter them through op/ed pieces and talk show appearances on which they discuss how their diverse college friendships contributed to their education and changed their views.