In October 2019, the Russell Sage Foundation published The Company We Keep: Interracial Friendships and Romantic Relationships from Adolescence to Adulthood by Grace Kao (Yale University), Kara Joyner (Bowling Green State University), and Kelly Stamper Balistreri (Bowling Green State University). In this interview, Kao, Joyner, and Balistreri respond to questions about and share research findings from their book, including the role of school segregation in shaping racialized friendship choices and expanding our notions of race beyond the black/white binary.
Q: Can you explain how school segregation shapes chances for forming interracial friendships and relationships both during adolescence and in young adulthood?
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: In our analyses, we found that the racial composition of schools was a strong predictor of their odds of having a friend of a different race or having a romantic relationship with someone of another race. Students were more likely to have a friend or romantic partner with someone of another race if they attended schools that were more racially diverse. Giving students the opportunity to interact with individuals of different races is essential to promoting interracial relationships.
Q: Can you please explain more about your decision to broaden the notion of interracial relationships beyond the black/white binary by incorporating Hispanics, Asians, and multiracial individuals into your research?
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: Kao has spent her career studying Asians and Hispanics in addition to blacks and whites -- this partially comes out of her interest in children of immigrants. In addition, Joyner and Balistreri have similarly focused their research on many groups, not just whites or blacks. Most children of immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic or Asian. Moreover, while interracial marriage has been steadily increasing, we know very little about where multiracial youth fall in their outcomes and behaviors relative to their mono racial counterparts. There are now more minorities who are Asian or Hispanic than those who are black, and in order to accurately portray contemporary race relations, it is essential that, when possible, studies include Hispanics, Asians, and multiracials.
Q: Please discuss why and how you chose to use friendship nominations to confirm survey respondents’ reports of interracial relationships.
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: Add Health is unique in that in more than 100 schools, it asked youth to nominate their closest friends and romantic relationships. Because every student in these schools completed questionnaires, one can examine the background characteristics of their nominated friends. This enabled us to match people (nominator and nominees) on race, class, gender, etc. In addition, we could examine which students did not have any friends. This is superior to other surveys that simply ask people if they have any friends who are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc. Individuals may be prompted to think of someone of a different race as a "friend" even though this is a very distant contact.
Q: Were you surprised by your research finding that socioeconomic status is a less salient factor in friendship choices than race?
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: We were not, but we understand the assumption that SES might play a strong role in determining the likelihood of interracial friendships. One of the most prevalent assumptions in sociology as well as in the public is that race differences in outcomes is simply a reflection of SES differences. People believe that higher SES whites and minorities have more opportunities to interact with others of different groups or are more open to these relationships, but we found very little evidence of this. The only exception were Hispanics, where higher SES Hispanics were more likely to have a friend of a different race.
Q: To what do you attribute the openness of same-sex couples to interracial relationships vs. heterosexual couples?
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: Some sociologists have speculated that individuals in same-sex relationships are more racially open, partially because these individuals may have fewer potential partners. It is difficult for us to make any conclusive claims because our sample sizes are small. However, our findings are consistent with others who have found same-sex couples to be more likely to be interracial that different-sex ones.
Q: What insights, if any, did you draw from your research on ways to improve rates of interracial friendships and romantic relationships in the United States? Are there any public policy or societal implications of your research?
Kao, Joyner, and Stamper Balistreri: The bottom line is that if we want to bridge racial divides, individuals have to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. To promote interracial friendships and romantic relationships, we must ensure that students attend schools with people of different races. We found that this not only improves their own likelihood of being in these relationships, but that even for those who did not have an interracial relationship while in high school, these individuals were still more likely than those who attended less diverse schools to have interracial relationships as adults.
We also found that minorities and males were less likely to have any friends at school -- this is alarming, and we argue that while researchers and policy makers focus on student achievement and educational attainment to evaluate student outcomes, we must remember that individuals need to have friends and feel integrated and accepted at school. Certainly, scholars have begun thinking about bullying behavior, but we were alarmed by the high rates of isolation among students. Minority male students in particular were less likely to have even one friend at school and they were less likely to be nominated by anyone else as a friend in school, especially compared to white boys and girls. Within racial groups, girls had better friendship outcomes than boys.