The integrated elementary school stands as one of America’s proudest and most hard-won achievements. Yet true integration calls for more than just a diverse collection of children in the same building, but also for social
integration. When it comes to relationships between African American and European American children—relationships of deep, historical significance to the United States—critical questions regarding social integration in American schools remain unanswered (Schofield & Hausmann, 2004
). One question is whether African American and European American children have more positive social relationships in more ethnically diverse classrooms. Does greater exposure to cross-ethnicity peers result in more positive intergroup contact (e.g., Allport, 1954
) or instead trigger mistrust and dislike (Putnam, 2007
)? A second question concerns how children with integrated social relationships are perceived by peers. Are children who have diverse peer relationships viewed as class leaders (Kawataba & Crick, 2008
; Lease & Blake, 2005
), or might they be less popular (at least among same-ethnicity peers) than children with segregated social relationships (Castelli, De Amicis, & Sherman, 2007
)? Taken together, the research questions of this study ask whether the peer social ecologies of contemporary elementary classrooms support or undermine the presence of positive, integrated relationships between African American and European American children.
Classroom Ethnic Composition and Social Integration
The ethnic composition of U.S. public schools varies widely by demographic setting (i.e., urban, suburban, rural) and geographic location. Roughly one in three ethnic minority children and one in eight European American children are enrolled in the nation’s 100 largest school districts; 71% of children in these districts are ethnic minorities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008
). Many urban schools are multiethnic, having substantial representation from three or more ethnic groups. There is considerable heterogeneity in the ethnic composition of urban districts. For example, in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, 39% of children are Latino, 33% are African American, and 15% are European American; Los Angeles, the second largest school district, is less balanced: 73% Latino, 12% African American, and 9% European American (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008
). Variability in urban school demographics permits investigation into how diversity relates to schooling outcomes.
Psychological research generally finds support for the benefits of diversity and intergroup contact in schools (e.g., Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2006
) and other social settings (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006
). Juvonen and colleagues (2006)
investigated student perceptions of school safety in 11 urban, multiethnic middle schools; students felt safer and less lonely, experienced less peer harassment, and exhibited higher self-worth the more ethnically diverse were their classrooms and schools. The authors attributed the positive findings in part to a more equitable distribution of numerical power across ethnic groups. Recent work in political science (Putnam, 2007
), however, offers the provocative claim that living in more diverse settings leads to less interpersonal connection and trust for African Americans and European Americans alike. Aptly termed “hunkering down,” this phenomenon signals that both “bonding” social capital (i.e., ties to the in-group) and “bridging” social capital (i.e., ties to out-groups) can suffer for years in the face of increasing diversity until a society has progressed (Putnam, 2007
, p. 144). As applied to children, the “hunkering down” perspective suggests that exposure to greater ethnic diversity in a classroom may not readily lead to true integration, but instead may yield social cleavages (Criswell, 1937
), thus suspending the realization of diversity’s potential benefits.
Despite recent demographic growth among ethnic minority populations, the multiethnic school is the exception (Orfield, 2001
; Pettigrew, 2004
). Indeed, the majority of children in the U.S.—roughly two in three ethnic minorities and seven in eight European Americans—attend smaller and less diverse districts than those in large urban centers (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008
). In less diverse districts, African American and European American children typically attend ethnically segregated schools or, to a lesser extent, schools with a numerical balance of African American and European Americans. The present study examines social integration within elementary schools where African American and European American students together compose the majority of the school population, with one ethnic group predominating. Of particular interest is whether the ethnic composition of the classroom differentially
affects social integration patterns of African American and European American children.
Social integration patterns among African American children may be particularly sensitive to classroom and school ethnic distribution. Jackson, Barth, Powell, and Lochman (2006)
asked children in 59 fifth-grade classrooms whom they “liked most” and “liked least,” and who were the “leaders” in their classrooms. African American children received more liked most and leader nominations, and fewer liked least nominations, when they had more African American classmates; in contrast, ratings for European American children were similar across classrooms, regardless of their status as a classroom majority or minority. Bellmore, Nishina, Witkow, Graham, and Juvonen (2007)
surveyed over 1100 sixth graders from multicultural schools with Latina/o, African American, European American, and Asian American children; they measured peer acceptance (i.e., liked most), peer rejection (i.e., liked least), and perceptions of being “cool.” Children of all ethnic groups received more acceptance and cool nominations from same-ethnicity peers in classrooms with higher percentages of same-ethnicity classmates. However, African American children in particular were less accepted by cross-ethnicity peers when they had fewer same-ethnicity classmates. Thus, both Jackson et al. (2006)
and Bellmore et al. (2007)
find that African American children, more than European American children, are viewed less positively by classmates when their classrooms have fewer same-ethnicity peers.
The present study examines whether Jackson and colleagues (2006)
and Bellmore and colleagues’ (2007)
findings on acceptance and rejection (i.e., social preference) generalize to children’s relationships
. To the extent that African Americans are less accepted by cross-ethnicity peers when they are classroom minorities, African Americans who are classroom minorities should have more segregated relationships (see also Hamm, Brown, & Heck, 2005
); for European American children, segregation ratios should be similar across classrooms of different ethnic composition. In contrast, a “hunkering down” perspective might suggest that ethnic composition effects would be similar (i.e., less integration in more diverse classrooms) for African American and European American children alike.
Social Integration and Social Status
An ideal scenario for the integrated elementary school is when children value peers with many positive cross-ethnicity relationships and few negative cross-ethnicity relationships. In this case, true social integration is supported by the children themselves. Indeed, children with integrated social relationships may be particularly well adjusted, with reputations as influential class leaders (Kawabata & Crick, 2008
; Lease & Blake, 2005
). On the other hand, children with segregated relationships might also enjoy high social status. Castelli et al. (2007)
interviewed White Italian children about drawings of White protagonists interacting with White and/or Black children. White Italian preschoolers and first graders preferred White protagonists who played exclusively with other White children, although in middle childhood this effect was not present. Bellmore et al. (2007)
, in their multicultural sample of U.S. sixth graders, report that African American and European American children who nominated more same-ethnicity classmates as “liked most” were in turn liked more by same-ethnicity peers. Thus, Castelli et al. (2007)
and Bellmore et al. (2007)
find positive associations between children’s preference for same-ethnicity peers and their acceptance by same-ethnicity peers.
The present research extends the scope of these investigations to examine whether children with segregated social relationships are perceived to be popular
among same-ethnicity peers, and for that matter among cross-ethnicity peers. Perceived popularity gives insight into the social status of African American and European American children beyond social preference and its “liked most” and “liked least” components (Cillessen, Schwartz, & Mayeux, in press
; Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000
). One child can like another without perceiving him or her to be generally popular, and one child can perceive another to be popular without feelings of personal affection, and possibly even with feelings of personal dislike (Adler & Adler, 1998
). Social preference expresses a personal sentiment (i.e., who do you
like?), but perceived popularity represents a judgment about what others value and the consensual norms of the peer ecology (Hartup & Abecassis, 2002
). Social preference is positively associated with prosocial characteristics and negatively associated with aggressive characteristics, whereas perceived popularity has only modest (in some cases positive, in other cases negative) correlations with aggression (Cillessen & Mayeaux, 2007
; Cillessen & Rose, 2005
; Mayeaux, Houser, & Dyches, in press
; Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1998
; Rodkin & Wilson, 2007
When applied to perceived popularity, research turns from the preference-based question, “Do children especially like same- (or cross-) ethnicity peers with more segregated social relationships?” to the popularity-based question, “Do children perceive same- (or cross-) ethnicity peers with more segregated social relationships to have greater status and influence?” In addition, the inclusion of perceived popularity as an index of social status allows for a fresh examination of whether social segregation patterns differentially affect the social status of African American and European American children.
Children’s negative interpersonal sentiments are not extensively studied (Card, 2010
; Hodges & Card, 2003
; Pfeifer, Brown, & Juvonen, 2007
), so it is unclear whether children who disproportionately dislike
cross-ethnicity peers are more preferred or perceived as more popular by their same-ethnicity classmates. Bellmore et al. (2007)
did not find an association between disliking peers of another ethnicity and being preferred by peers of one’s own ethnicity. Yet since negative relationships can make a person’s other relationships more cohesive (Heider, 1958
), it is reasonable to suspect that children may in fact value same-ethnicity peers who demonstrate cross-ethnicity dislike. Social segregation can also bring costs (Putnam, 2007
): Children with segregated social relationships may be better liked by their same-ethnicity peers, but are probably disliked or perceived as unpopular by cross-ethnicity peers.
This study broadens previous research on how children’s intergroup relations are associated with two characteristics of elementary classroom peer ecologies: classroom ethnic context and peer social status. The methods of this study have several notable strengths.
First, integration patterns are assessed using multiple positive (i.e., friendship, group affiliation) and negative (i.e., liked least) ties. Including a social network measure such as group affiliation is particularly appropriate for a study of children’s intergroup relations, but previous research has mainly considered acceptance and friendship choices, reflecting a larger trend in social development literature to focus on individuals and dyads more than groups and social networks (Cillessen & Borch, 2008
). Of procedures for identifying children’s groups (see Cillessen & Borch, 2008
), this study used Social Cognitive Mapping (SCM; Cairns & Cairns, 1994
). SCM has the benefit of being multi-informant
, meaning that children report their own affiliative groups and those of other children in the classroom. Social network block modeling procedures are typically constructed to consider only who is your
friend or affiliate. The multi-informant aspect of SCM contributes to the stability of identified peer groups, and is particularly robust for the identification of aggressive and unpopular children (Rodkin & Ahn, 2009
Second, analyses feature a compositionally invariant
segregation index that correctly controls for the differing opportunities for same- and cross-ethnicity contact in classrooms of varying ethnic composition (Gorard & Taylor, 2002
; Moody, 2001
; Rodkin, Wilson, & Ahn, 2007
); this index provides a ratio of bonding social capital (same-ethnicity ties) to bridging social capital (cross-ethnicity ties).
Third, primary study analyses are multilevel (children nested within classrooms) and control for the key social behavior variables of peer-perceived prosocial behavior, and relational and overt aggression. There are well-established connections between these behaviors and social status (Cillessen et al., in press
; Cillessen & Rose, 2005
), and additional evidence indicates that status-behavior associations may vary by individual ethnicity and classroom ethnic composition (Meisinger, Blake, Lease, Palardy, & Olejnik, 2007
; Rodkin et al., 2000
Fourth, the sample is ethnically heterogeneous at individual and classroom levels. Most classrooms have a clear numeric ethnic majority, but also sufficient numeric minority children to permit quantitative analysis. Finally, the sociometric design of this investigation has children nominate classmates with whom they were friends, whom they believed to be popular, whom they liked least, etc., but children were not asked about race, ethnicity, African Americans, or European Americans per se. This minimizes social desirability effects.