Students in Different Multiracial Schools

Teachers College Record Volume 112, Number 6, June 2010, pp. 1529–1574
Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University
0161-4681
Race and Cultural Flexibility among
Students in Different Multiracial Schools
PRUDENCE L. CARTER
Stanford University
Background/Context: One of the most critical functions of a well-integrated school is the
development of “culturally flexible” students who, over the course of their social development,
effectively navigate diverse social environs such as the workplace, communities, and neighborhoods. Most studies, albeit with some exceptions, have investigated the impact of desegregation on short- and long-term gains in achievement and attainment, as opposed to its
impact on intergroup relations. Mixed-race schools are vital not only for bolstering achievement outcomes of previously disadvantaged students but also for promoting social cohesion
in a diverse society.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Specifically, this article examines
the difference in cultural flexibility between black and white students enrolled in schools with
different racial and ethnic compositions. Cultural flexibility is defined as the propensity to
value and move across different cultural and social peer groups and environments.
Furthermore, this article provides some insight into how students in different mixed-race
and desegregated educational contexts experience their school’s social organization and cultural environments, which influence their interactions and academic behaviors.
Setting: The study was conducted over a 6-month period in four high schools: a majorityminority school and a majority-white school located in a northeastern city, and a majorityminority school and a majority-white school located in a southern city.
Research Design: Survey data were gathered from a randomly stratified sample of 471
Black and White students attending. In addition, ethnographic notes from weeks of school
observations and transcribed interview data from 57 group interviews conducted in the four
schools with students in Grades 9–12 complemented the survey research.
Data Collection and Analysis: Findings reveal significant associations among self-esteem,
academic and extracurricular placement, and cultural flexibility for black students. Also,
black students in majority-minority schools scored significantly higher on the cultural flexibility scale than those in majority-white schools. Among white students, regional location
1530 Teachers College Record
and academic placement showed statistically significant associations with cultural flexibility. The ethnographic and interview data further explicate why these patterns occurred and
illuminate how certain school contextual factors are likely linked to students’ cultural flexibility. Overall, this study’s findings highlight some connections between student and school
behaviors as they pertain to both students’ and educators’ willingness and ability to realize
the visions of racial and ethnic integration wholly.
For more than a century, the United States has grappled with the complexities of social differences and the existence of intergroup conflict
fomenting bias, intolerance, and discrimination. In 1954, lawmakers
viewed the American school as a principal facilitator of bridging racial
and economic chasms, and one “intangible” goal of the Brown vs. the
Topeka, Kansas Board of Education legal precedent was to facilitate crosscultural communication among racial groups previously isolated and
alienated from one another (Wells 2000). While neighborhoods and
schools are more segregated today than ever (Massey and Denton 1993;
Orfield 2001), the tides of social, economic, and political change in the
21st century still compel us to engage with the diversity of perspectives,
identities, and cultures in U.S. society. Forces of immigration and globalization now necessitate that American youth acquire not only requisite
technical skills but also sociocultural skills to participate in a broader
society where permeable national boundaries open up doors to myriad
cultural possibilities and economic opportunities. Thus, a realization of
the social goals of mixed-race schooling—of integration, equity, fairness,
and status equality, and not merely desegregation or physical proximity
for racial and ethnic groups—remains critical. Moreover, schools continue to be major sites of socialization and promising conduits of crosscultural participation and engagement.
Most studies, with some exceptions (e.g., Hallinan and Williams 1989;
Schofield 1993), have investigated the impact of desegregation on shortand long-term gains in achievement and attainment, as opposed to its
impact on intergroup relations (Granovetter 1985; Schofield 1991).
Mixed-race schools are vital not only for bolstering achievement outcomes of previously disadvantaged students but also for promoting social
cohesion in a diverse society. That is, in addition to the value-added from
an achievement and attainment perspective (i.e., increased test scores
and graduation and college-going rates for racial and ethnic minority
and poor students), well-integrated schools are also instrumental in facilitating interactions among students from different ethnic, cultural, and
economic backgrounds (Linn and Welner 2007). In short, as we all know,
schools serve both academic and social functions.
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1531
One of the most critical functions of a well-integrated school is the
development of “culturally flexible” students who, over the course of
their social development, effectively navigate diverse social environs such
as the workplace, communities, and neighborhoods. Studies of “bicultural” students show consistent results of positive academic, psychological, and social attainment, compared with their relatively monocultural
peers (Carter 2005; Darder 1991; Gibson 1988; Kyong-Dong 2005;
Mehan, Hubbard, and Villanueva 1994; Phinney and Devich-Navarro
1997; Trueba 2002). These studies, therefore, suggest that ultimately, culturally flexible students possess the ability to interact in, participate in,
and navigate different social and cultural settings, to embrace multiple
forms of cultural knowledge and expand their own understanding of self,
and to hold inclusive perspectives about others who differ in myriad
social aspects or identities.
Cultural flexibility encompasses the individual’s ability to cross different social and symbolic boundaries. Social boundaries emerge from the
grouping of individuals into social categories and may be national, racial,
cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and/or gendered in nature, to name
a few. Symbolic boundaries, in comparison, comprise conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and
even time and space; they are the cultural tools that individuals and
groups “struggle over and come to agree upon [as] definitions of reality“
(Lamont and Molnár 2002, 168). Although the study of how individuals
create and reproduce social and symbolic boundaries in everyday life is a
critical topic in sociological research (Lamont 2000; Lamont and Molnár
2002), we have very limited knowledge of how students understand and
participate in social and cultural boundary crossing within different
school contexts. Specifically, we need to ask how various practices within
the school’s social and cultural settings influence students’ ability to
attain cultural flexibility. Furthermore, we should inquire about the connections between the social compositions of schools and students’ inclinations for cultural flexibility. That is, do students in schools that vary by
social composition (i.e., majority-minority and majority-white) show significantly different degrees of cultural flexibility? If so, what are some factors that appear to be associated with these differences?
Though previous studies show that mixed-race, predominantly white
schools generally benefit racial and ethnic minority students, offering
better academic resources (Crain 1970; Crain and Mahard 1983;
McIntire, Hughes, and Say 1982; Orfield 2001; Wells and Crain 1994),
the question remains regarding whether they necessarily provide the cultural and social environments to enable all students—whether African
American, Asian American, Latino/a, or white—to avail themselves fully
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of critical information gathering and academic resources and to cross
social boundaries and form relationships that would extend well into
adulthood and influence their residential, social network, and friendship
choices. While racial proximity is a necessary condition for long-term
engagement across racial and ethnic boundaries (Hallinan and Williams
1989), studies show that social forces such as discrimination, racism, and
inequality permeate the school’s social context and countervail students’
racial boundary crossing (Wells et al., 2009).
We can possibly attribute the mixed results that early studies yielded
about the limited social and cultural benefits of desegregated schooling
to the forces of continued prejudice, unequal status, and the persistence
of thick social and spatial boundaries (Allport 1954). For example, some
researchers found that students fared better sociopsychologically and culturally in “minority” schools than in desegregated ones (Bates 1990; St.
John 1975), though reviews of these works mention that such research
failed to explain exactly what mechanisms or processes in desegregated
schools failed to facilitate interaction across racial lines (Schofield 1991).
Meanwhile, newer research shows that African Americans and Latinos
feel more attached to school when they attend with greater proportions
of their own race or ethnicity (Johnson, Crosnoe, and Elder 2001).
Furthermore, higher education research studies reveal that black students in white-dominant schools report problems of cultural alienation,
social adjustment, racial discrimination, and strained interpersonal relations with other students, faculty, and staff (Allen 1988, 1992; Bennett
1984; Chavous et al. 2002; Cureton 2003; Hurtado 1998; Kraft 1991;
Willie 2003). The conclusion from these studies is that racial proximity
with other groups in schools may be a necessary but insufficient condition for the attainment of holistic social integration for most, if not all, of
its students.
The promotion of cultural flexibility among students and educators is
very likely crucial to the realization of a wholly integrated school.
Students’ cultural flexibility may be determined by a host of factors ranging from individual or psychological, including self-concept, attitudes,
and values (LaFramboise, Coleman, and Gerton 1993; Sussman 2000), to
social or contextual factors, such as their social organization among peers
and friends (Hallinan and Teixeira 1987; Moody 2002). As social agents,
students can either consciously or unconsciously choose to be culturally
flexible in their identities, which are bolstered by their own views of selfesteem (Phinney and Devich-Navarro 1997). Their opportunities to mix
across various social and cultural boundaries in and outside of the classroom in schools can matter, too. We know that schools can maintain an
ethos that reinforces social boundaries, whereby minority students, for
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1533
example, are poorly incorporated into either desegregated or majoritywhite schools (Mickelson 2001; Oakes 1985; Tyson, Darity, and Castellino
2005; Wells et al., 2009). In the end, we must ascertain what those individual and school-level practices are that either encourage or impede students’ movement across social and symbolic boundaries.
Why are some students more culturally flexible, or inclined to move
beyond their own social, cultural, and even academic comfort zones than
others? What is it about a social and academic context that encourages
students to be culturally flexible? Taking both a deductive and inductive
approach guided by prior research, this article examines two lines of
inquiry: (1) some individual and social factors associated with the cultural flexibility of black and white students in both majority-minority
schools and majority-white schools, and (2) different facets of school and
society that students discuss as associated with their tendencies (or not)
to move across social and cultural boundaries. Using the results of data
analyses from a combination of mixed methods—survey, ethnography,
and interviews—I address these issues from a research study of four large
urban and suburban schools in the Northeast and South.
BACKGROUND LITERATURE
CULTURAL (IN)FLEXIBILITY
The concept of “cultural flexibility” used in this study follows the idea of
a “flexible mind,” a social-psychological construct introduced by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel. According to Zerubavel (1993), the progress of
social organizations (schools) is stunted when individuals (e.g., students
and educators) maintain either a cognitively unyielding commitment to
the mutual exclusivity of outsiders (“rigid-minded”) or an inattention to
structure, appropriate resources, and boundaries (“fuzzy-minded”). The
flexible mind, in contrast, represents a cognitive state that allows individuals to celebrate and participate in a variety of different local, national,
and group-oriented cultural ways, as opposed to acceptance of either separatist or nationalist ideology (rigid), or humanist desires for global
homogeneity (fuzzy), which supplant cultural diversity.
Cultural flexibility, like its twin concept “cosmopolitanism” (see, for
example, Appiah 1997, 619–620), constitutes the behavioral or human
practices embraced by an individual with a flexible mind—his or her
cross-cultural participation. While cosmopolitanism focuses intently on
international experiences in terms of cross-cultural participation, cultural flexibility, as used in this work, concentrates more on local social and
cultural practices of high school adolescents. Cultural flexibility and
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cosmopolitanism are not mutually exclusive concepts. In a broader
global societal context, the two would be quite similar. In particular, this
article provides an empirical investigation about cultural flexibility within
four different high school contexts in two regions of the United States
among youth of dissimilar social backgrounds.
1 Specifically, I use ageappropriate indictors to signify high school students’ cultural flexibility
as it pertains to their preferences for participation in cross-racial, crossethnic, cross-gender, and popular cultural activities centering on music,
dress, and teenage speech and interactional styles. Studies of adolescents
have shown these factors to be more salient in the cultural considerations
of high school-age youth (Amit-Talai and Wulff 1995; Bucholtz 2002;
Carter 2005; Danesi 1994; Dolby 2001; Yon 2000).
Not only does this investigation of cultural flexibility capture traits that
characterize students’ social and cultural preferences, but it also suggests
how students’ social organization within schools can either facilitate or
inhibit their ability to behave flexibly. For example, students’ academic
placements and extracurricular participation in school could engender
boundaries that reinforce social divides among students of varying identities, such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and/or taste cultures. In
response, students could eventually come to view certain academic or
extracurricular domains in their school as the spheres belonging to a particular social group. Consequently, they may choose not to participate. In
this case, the school’s sociocultural context encompasses specific school
practices that correspond to disparate levels of student engagement and
participation. Researchers have shown, nevertheless, that students who
share similar social identities vary in how they respond to these different
academic and extracurricular domains depending on the school, its
social composition, and the nature of its sociocultural context (Conchas
2006; Lewis 2003; Metz 2000; Wells and Crain 1999).
Empirically, the concept of cultural flexibility has occupied the attention of researchers who study specific economic sectors and immigration
and who focus on the inclusion and adaptation of new residents and
workers in a host society (e.g., Kyong-Dong 2005). Few scholars, if any,
however, have written explicitly about cultural flexibility, particularly as it
pertains to students’ social behaviors in school. Yet, we know that students negotiate their own social identities and peer networks in ways that
compel them to make choices about whether to interact across social categories ascribed to them, or to remain within their circumscribed limits.
Heeding Schofield’s (1991) call, this article introduces results from a
study of students’ social and cultural experiences and highlights some
associations between their schools’ contexts and intergroup relations.
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1535
Following a brief review of literature that highlights other factors related
to cultural flexibility, I present the findings.
IDENTITY, SELF-ESTEEM, AND CULTURAL FLEXIBILITY
In various subfields of educational research, scholars inquire about the
associations between students’ cultural identities and their school participation (Carter 2005; Fordham and Ogbu 1986; Gibson 1988; O’Connor
2001; Ogbu 1978). Researchers also investigate the dynamic nature of
cultural identity and discuss how there exist multiple forms of cultural
identity transitions—from the subtractive, where students lose touch with
their native/home culture identity (Valenzuela 1999); to the additive, or
feeling closer to the host/dominant cultural identity, although with some
maintenance of one’s cultural heritage (Gibson 1988); to the affirmative
(or sometimes perceived as oppositional), where students reject the
mainstream cultural identity and maintain their own cultural centrality
(Deyhle 1995). Sussman (2000) discusses a fourth category, too: the
intercultural identity, which she defines as “neither integration of home
and host culture values (hybridization) nor the bicultural strategy that
results from the acculturation experience, but rather an identity in which
individuals define themselves as world citizens and are able to interact
appropriately and effectively in many countries or regions” (368).
To be culturally flexible, students most likely will have to maintain
“intercultural” identities (Sussman 2000). Interculturalism characterizes
students and educators who define themselves as world citizens and who
are able to interact effectively in multiple cultural settings. Intercultural
identities enable students and educators to be willing and inclined to participate in various cultural environments and to personally maintain different cultural schemas (for a discussion of “cultural schema,” see Sewell
1992). Not only does the intercultural individual possess multiple cultural competences, but he or she also does not denigrate one culture in
favor of another; he or she conceives himself or herself as a multifaceted
cultural being (see also LaFramboise, Coleman, and Gerton 1993).
Interculturalism’s aim is to facilitate the student’s ability to hold multiple
cultural schemas or toolkits.
2 While social and organizational psychologists use the term “interculturalism,” sociologists utilize the idea of
“omnivorousness”—capturing the individual’s capacity to be eclectic and
multicultural in his or her tastes, knowledge, or cultural appreciation,
especially in music (e.g. Bryson 1996; Peterson and Kern 1996).
Finally, culturally flexible individuals may maintain strong levels of
individualism or self-views, since they participate in and move across
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diverse social and cultural environments. At the individual level, selfesteem could be a major determinant of cultural flexibility. A strong
sense of self might imbue individuals with the confidence to move comfortably across different identity contexts. In other words, the culturally
flexible individual, enabled by a high self-concept and self-esteem—
which social psychologists show to be positively related to individualism
(Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier 2002)3
—may not necessarily feel
great pressure to conform to delineated, group-based identity markers,
self-segregation, or thick and salient in-group/out-group boundaries.
Rather, he or she could make more expansive choices about his or her
social interactions and participation in myriad cultural activities.
CULTURALLY FLEXIBLE STUDENTS AND THE SCHOOL’S SOCIAL
ORGANIZATION
Not only do students reproduce social boundaries and meanings about
various social groups in their daily scholastic activities, but their social
organization in school can influence flexibility in their engagement with
and understanding of various sectors within school. For example, studies
show that conventional practices such ability grouping and tracking
affect students’ cross-racial friendship patterns (Hallinan and Williams
1989; Moody 2002). Students are also known to attach meanings to, and
associate specific groups with, different classes in tracked systems
depending on the representation of identities in those classrooms
(Mickelson and Velasco 2006; Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 2005).
Specifically, research shows that when black students are disproportionately underrepresented in high-track classes, peers outside of these
classes are more likely to accuse their coethnic peers of “acting white.”
However, when black students are proportionately represented across the
tracks in schools, evidence of accusations of “acting white” directed
toward high-achieving students is not found (Mickelson 2001; Tyson,
Darity, and Castellino 2005). Consequently, tracked classes, especially
when status equality does not exist among different groups (e.g., race
and gender), could likely influence the boundaries of who is “in” or “out”
in terms of status, intelligence, and participation (Goldsmith 2004;
Schofield 1991).
Yet, studies also show that students can be flexible, depending on the
context, with the meanings that they attach to school practices and to
each other. That is, the social and symbolic boundaries that students create among themselves should vary depending on the school’s explicit
social, cultural, and ideological setting. One example pertains to the “acting white” phenomenon mentioned earlier. Using the nationally repre-
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1537
sentative Adolescent Health data, economists have shown that highachieving black students with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher (on
a 4.0 scale) in predominantly black high schools do not lose out in popularity or get accused of “acting white,” as do their same-race high-achieving peers in predominantly white schools (Fryer and Torrelli 2005). The
findings suggest that adequate representation and status equality defuse
students’ interpretations of different spheres of schooling as the turf of
one social group or another (see also Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 2005).
Along a different line of research, Gurin et al. (1999), in evaluating a
program to facilitate multicultural relations in a university setting, found
that students who actively participated in a program promoting diversity
and inter-racial relations were more likely to participate in cross-cultural
campus events, to take specific courses on inequality, and to maintain
intergroup dialogues and discussions. In sum, studies suggest that status
equality and proactive cross-cultural practices in schools can enable students’ propensity for cultural flexibility. In addition, these studies suggest
that while students’ self-views are likely one factor in influencing their
cultural flexibility, their organization and participation in school are also
connected to their willingness to move across social and cultural boundaries. That is, in the context of multi-racial and -cultural schools,
students’ status and location within school likely have as much determination regarding how students interact with other groups as their global
attitudes toward these groups do.
RESEARCH SITES AND METHODS
The data used here were gathered from case studies of four U.S. high
schools (Grades 9–12): two located in the metropolitan area of a southern capital city, and two in a northeastern capital city. One school in each
city is minority-dominant (predominantly black in “South Capital City”
and predominantly black and Latino in “North Capital City”), and one is
multiracial and predominantly white. A team of seven researchers
(including six assistants and me, the principal investigator) visited the
four schools weekly for 6 months from January though June 2007. The
research team comprised three African Americans, one Egyptian
American, and three European Americans. Except at South City Honors,
which was visited mainly by two African American researchers, a mixedrace pair of researchers attended an array of classes and extracurricular
and lunchroom activities 4–5 days a week, spending anywhere from 3 to
7 hours at the schools.
The four schools in the study share two main criteria. First, they are all
mixed race in terms of student composition, though the racial majority
1538 Teachers College Record
varies in each. Second, to hold constant the average academic orientation of the schools, the four schools chosen are similar in their state’s
accountability ratings as they pertain to the No Child Left Behind law; all
four schools are relatively high performing in their respective districts
(refer to Table 1). In addition, the schools in the two selected cities represent areas where desegregation struggles were fraught with racial and
ethnic strife (Dalbey and Harris 2001; Eaton 2001), yet their regional histories vary in terms of interracial and interethnic contact and the permeability of group boundaries (Farley and Frey 1994). While the four
schools are not representative of all schools in their respective districts,
they are typical of schools that can be classified as “mixed race” (nominally, at least) in their respective districts and metropolitan areas.
The data collection began in South Capital City (SCC) in January 2007
at South County Prep High School (a pseudonym).
4 This school comprises 1,389 students in Grades 9–12 and is located at the fringe of a
medium-sized urban southern city (2000 pop. 184,256). According to the
2000 census, there were 497,197 people residing within SCC’s metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The racial makeup of the MSA is 53% white,
45% African American, 0.7% Asian, and 1% Hispanic or Latino of any
race. At South County Prep High School, about 77% of the students are
racially classified as white, 21% are racially classified as black, 1% are
racially classified as Asian, and 1% are racially classified as Hispanic.
5
South County Prep’s student-teacher ratio is 17:3, and, with the exception of three, all the teachers and staff are white. Ten miles west of South
County Prep sits South City Honors High School, an urban comprehensive high school of Grades 9–12 with a notable Advanced Placement program. South City Honors has 1,333 students; 93% of the students are
racially classified as black, and 6% are racially classified as white. With a
student-teacher ratio of 19:6, it is led by a multiracial staff of 68 teachers.
Similar school types were selected for observational, interview, and survey data collection in North Capital City (NCC). NCC, a significantly
larger urban center with a population (2000 pop. 589,141) that is 54%
white, 25% black, 14% Hispanic, and 8% Asian, serves a public school
student population of 57,279. According to the 2000 census, about 4.4
million people reside within NCC’s MSA. The student racial demographics in NCC’s public schools do not reflect the residential demographics,
however. With the exception of three exam schools—an organizational
structure that attracts a critical percentage of white students—NCC’s
public schools are highly segregated. Forty-two percent of students are
black, 14% are white, 9% are Asian, and 35% are Hispanic.
North City Tech School is one of the three exam schools, although
more than 80% of its 1,190 students can be categorized as “minority” or
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1539
students of color. Although many of these students performed better
than the majority of NCC students on their elementary state tests, most
North City Tech students did not score high enough to be accepted to
the two other exam schools, which are considered more elite and ranked
higher. Out of the four schools in this study, North City Tech is the most
balanced in terms of race and ethnicity: about 45% of the students are
black, 23% are Asian, 20% are Hispanic, and 11% are white.
6 North City
Tech’s student-teacher ratio is 18:3, and, like South City Honors in SCC,
it maintains a multiracial teaching staff and administration of about 65.
To find a comparative majority-white school with a critical mass of black
and Latino students, I had to engage a suburban upper-middle-class
school district that participates in North Capital City’s metropolitan
“Voluntary Desegregation Program” (VDP).
7 North Village Prep High
School is located 23 miles northwest of North City Tech High School.
North Capital City (NCC)—
2000 pop. 589,141
South Capital City (SCC)—
2000 pop. 184,256
North City Tech
(majority
minority)
North Village
Prep (majority
white)
South City
Honors (majority
minority)
South County
Prep (majority
white)
Total # of students 1190 1242 1333 1389
Percent black students 45 6 93 21
Percent white students 11 86 6 77
Student-teacher ratio 18.3 14.1 19.6 17.3
Percentage scoring proficient
or above on 2007 Grade 10
state English accountability test:
Black students
White students
93
100
71
97
74
92
59
82
Percentage scoring proficient
or above on 2007 Grade 10
state math accountability test:
Black students
White students
96
100
72
90
92a
96
64
84
School NCLB accountability
performance rating
Very High** Very High** Exemplary (4) Superior (5)**
Number of students in survey
sample* 98 91 98 184
Table 1. Demographic Traits of Schools in Study
*Black and white students only.
** Denotes highest performance ranking for the state. a For South City Honors, the science scores are reported instead; math scores were unavailable for white
students in 2007 because of low numbers of students who took the test.
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Since 1967, it has participated in the VDP to attract African American or
black and Hispanic students, most of whom entered a lottery to attend
affluent suburban schools like North Village Prep High School. Of North
Village Prep’s student population of 1,242, 84% are white, 6% are black,
5% are Asian, and 3% are Latino. With the exception of one African
American and one Asian American teacher, all of North Village Prep
High School’s 88 teachers are white, and its student-teacher ratio is 14:1.
USING MIXED METHODS
One of the best ways for researchers to become familiar with the school
culture is to immerse themselves in the context. A pair of researchers visited South County Prep weekly, and South City Honors, North City Tech,
and North Village Prep High Schools at least four times a week. They sat
in on classes, talked to students during lunch periods and breaks,
attended assemblies and sporting events, and talked to teachers and staff
during their break periods. I expected that understandings about the
school’s sociocultural context and its ability to promote cultural flexibility would be implicit in interactions between and among students and
teachers; in the language that they used to describe themselves and other
identity-based groups; in how students were physically organized and distributed across different environments of learning and extracurricular
activities; in the schools’ written mission statements, rules, norms, and
policies; and in how principals, teachers, and students discussed sanctions against students.
Group interviews have emerged as a popular technique for gathering
qualitative data among social scientists (Morgan 1996), and they are especially effective among youth in ascertaining specific consensus beliefs, in
obtaining greater depth and breadth in responses than what occurs in
individual interviews (whether formal or informal), and in verifying
claims made about the school or groups of individuals by a particular person (Lewis 1992). Thus, my research assistants and I conducted 57 indepth 1–2-hour group interviews with students—a combination of
multiracial, mono-racial, coed, and single-sex groups across Grades 9–12
in the four schools—about their intergroup experiences regarding racial,
ethnic, gender, and class dynamics. These tape-recorded group interviews were transcribed and, along with hundreds of pages of field notes,
systematically coded by another team of research assistants using Atlas.ti.
Research assistants and I generated analytic memos highlighting emergent codes and themes pertaining to the research foci, which were then
discussed, compared, and reconciled for intercoder reliability purposes.
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1541
SURVEY MEASURES
I also used survey methods to enable us to examine wider between-school
differences in cultural flexibility. I drew a random stratified sample of a
range of 25–35% of each school’s student populations and yielded a total
survey sample size of 652 students across the four schools.
8 The main outcome of interest in this analysis—cultural flexibility— comprises nine
items. In the abstract, “cultural flexibility” is defined as the ability to interact with members of other social groups and to embrace activities generally considered outside one’s own ascribed social and cultural identity,
family, community, or social groups. Here I operationalize this concept
with a nine-item scale that is based on findings from previous adolescent
interviews (see Carter 2005) and that was tested on this student sample.
9
Both factor and scale analyses reveal that these items constitute a highly
reliable construct of one unique factor (with an eigenvalue greater than
5.0). In addition, analyses yielded a separate reliability coefficient of .91
for both black and white groups. Moreover, the high scale reliability coefficients maintained across the four multiracial high schools, ranging
from .88 to .92.
Cultural flexibility, as introduced here, is not just a student’s inclination toward racial bridging. Students were asked about their propensity
to engage with other persons of varying social and cultural backgrounds.
Specifically, students were asked nine questions: “On a scale of 1 to 5, in
which 1 means makes a very large difference and 5 means does not make a difference at all, would the following characteristics make a difference in
whether you would become friends with another student?” These characteristics covered differences in gender, race, language styles, musical
tastes (e.g., classical, hip hop, and rock), clothing styles (i.e., not wearing
“cool clothing”), nerdiness, and a dislike for television. The Cronbach’s
alpha for the cultural flexibility scale equals .91, and this reliability coefficient remained consistently high, at greater than .90 for both racial subgroups in the analyses. Higher scores represent more cultural flexibility.
Controls: I used mother/female guardian’s and father/male guardian’s
highest level of education to control for certain family background
effects and included a categorical variable for gender (male = 1).
Students were asked to self-report their grade point average (GPA) using
categorical variables ranging from 0 (less than 1.0) to 4 (4.0 or higher).
Main Predictors: To ascertain individual and group-level differences, I
used categorical or dummy variables for school compositional type
(henceforth referred to as “majority-minority” and “majority-white”).
Students hold multiple intersecting identities shaped by their varied
degrees of school engagement and academic experiences (Carter 2005;
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Flores- González 2002; Yon 2000). Following Hallinan and Williams’ work
(1989), which shows the social organization of students in schools to have
an impact on their friendship choices, I used a dummy variable to indicate whether the student was enrolled in either an AP or honors course
in English, math, history, science, or foreign language, and a continuous
variable for the number of extracurricular activities in which the student
participated (which in many multiracial schools increases the opportunity to meet across race, ethnicity, and other categories of social
difference).
Students also have their own personal preferences and prejudices,
which they may garner from their home communities and wider society.
Therefore, I chose to include predictors of students’ personal preferences for living in neighborhoods and attending school with only members of their own racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well
as their academic, gender, and class identities. Students were asked to
respond whether the following statements were true or false: “I prefer to
attend a school where most of the students come from the same racial or
ethnic background as mine”; “I prefer to attend a school where most of
the students come from the same economic background as mine”; “I prefer to live in a neighborhood where most of the people come from the
same racial or ethnic background as mine”; and “I prefer to live in a
neighborhood where most of the people come from the same economic
background as mine.”
As prior research has shown, social psychological factors vary between
students of color attending majority-white schools and those attending
majority -minority schools (St. John 1975; Simmons et al. 1978).
10
By including self-esteem in our models, I can examine the variability of
students’ responses to self-esteem questions. That is, this study of both
intraracial and interracial differences provides some illustration of the
range of views about themselves among the black and white students, in
the four different schools in this study. First, I examined whether there
might be differences in self-esteem among students and then explored
how self-esteem might influence students’ levels of cultural flexibility. I
added a continuous variable measuring self-esteem to the models, using
Rosenberg’s (1985) widely used and reliable scale. The alpha for the 10
items of the Rosenberg scale is .80.
Since history and prior research inform us that regional differences in
terms of race relations might influence intergroup dynamics (Firebaugh
and Davis 1988; Quillian 1996), I also included a dummy variable for
region (North = 1). To ascertain significant differences among students
by race and ethnicity, I include dummy variables for black (with whites as
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1543
Variable Description Metric M SD
Cultural flexibility “Would the following characteristics of a person make a
large or small difference in whether of
not you will become friends with another
student? The person: (1) is of a gender different from you;
(2) is of a race or ethnicity different from you; (3) speaks
proper Standard English all the time; (4) does not wear
cool clothes; (5) prefers to listen to classical music; (6) does
not like rap or hip hop music; (7) prefers to listen to rock
music; (8) does not watch TV; (9) is nerdy.
1 = Makes a very
large difference
2 = Makes a large
difference
3 = Makes neither a
large nor small
difference
4 = Makes a small
difference
5 = Does not make a
difference
3.96 .88
Preference for
same-race peers in
school
Is the following statement true or false? “I prefer to attend a
school where most of the students come from the same
racial or ethnic background as mine.”
0 = False
1 = True
.34 .47
Preference for
same-race in
neighborhood
Is the following statement true or false? “I prefer to live in a
neighborhood where most of the people come from the
same racial or ethnic background as mine.”
0 = False
1 = True
.34 .47
Preference for
same-SES peers in
school
Is the following statement true or false? “I prefer to attend a
school where most of the students come from the same
economic background as mine.”
0 = False
1 = True
.28 .45
Preference for
same-SES in
neighborhood
Is the following statement true or false? “I prefer to live in a
neighborhood where most of the people come from the
same economic background as mine.”
0 = False
1 = True
.41 .49
Student’s grade
point average
Student report of grade point averages 0 = < 1.0
1 = 1.9–1.9
2 = 2.0–2.9
3 = 3.0–3.9
4 = 4.0 or higher
2.65 .72
In AP or honors
courses
Students’ report of whether they are enrolled in any
advanced placement and/or honors courses
0 = No
1 = Yes
.55 .50
Number of
extracurricular
activities
Count of the number of extracurricular activities mentioned
by the student
0 = Min
6 = Max
1.39 1.35
Family
background/
parent’s education
Composite of single or two parents’/guardians’ educational
background
1 = Less than high
school
2 = High school
diploma/GED
3 = Post-HS
vocational/trade
school
4 = Some college
5 = College degree
6 = Graduate degree
3.96 1.33
Variable Description Metric M SD
Self-esteem Composite scale of nine items: (1) Good luck is more
important than hard work for success; (2) Every time I try
to get ahead, something stops me; (3) When I make plans, I
can usually carry them out; (4) On the whole, I am satisfied
with myself; (5) I am able to do things as well as most other
people; (6) I certainly feel useless at times; (7) I take a
positive attitude toward myself; (8) I wish I could have more
respect for myself; (9) At times, I think I am no good at all;
(10) Planning only makes a person unhappy because plans
hardly ever work out anyway.
1 = Disagree strongly
2 = Disagree
3 = Agree
4 = Agree strongly
3.0 .48
Table 2. Descriptions, Means, and Standard Deviations for Selected Variables: By Schools
1544 Teachers College Record
the reference group). Table 2 reports the descriptions, means, and
standard deviations for the student-level variables tested in the regression
models.
ANALYTIC STRATEGY AND FINDINGS
During the analyses phase of this research, I focused first on the survey
data and used the observational and interview data to help provide some
clues as to why certain patterns occurred. First, I examined the mean cultural flexibility scores of students at each school. I then looked for significant differences between students who attended the majority-white
versus majority-minority schools. Subsequently, I added the controls to
each model for both outcome variables of interest. Next, I chose to conduct separate analyses using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression for
within-race analyses for both black and white students in the sample.
These regression models employed the same analytic steps as the overall
analyses for all students.
The first model introduces the school-type variable and captures the
average group difference in cultural flexibility between students in
majority-minority and majority-white schools. This first set of analyses
examines all the students in the sample (N = 652). We would expect that
exogenous factors such as family background, gender, and self-esteem
would account for some of students’ cultural flexibility. If these predictors do not substantially reduce the coefficient for the school-type variable and it remains significant, we might infer that the social
psychological factors and student’s school-related traits might influence
his or her cultural flexibility. A second model adds various control variables, including parent’s education; students’ self-reported grade point
average, gender, and region; and dummy variables for race and ethnicity
(with white students as the reference category).
The final model examines the influence of students’ preferences for
school and neighborhood composition; the impact of self-esteem;
advanced course-taking participation; the number of extracurricular
activities; and the demographic control variables. Significant reductions
in the school-type coefficient, once the other predictors are added, illustrate whether these factors have some association with students’ cultural
flexibility as compared with other student traits connected to their educational experiences entered into the model prior. In the next set of
analyses, I explore separate models for predicting the cultural flexibility
of African American and white students in the study, first ascertaining differences by school type.
11 I repeated the same models for these subgroups
to ascertain if different predictors of cultural flexibility operate for them.
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1545
Table 3 reports the mean cultural flexibility and self-esteem scores of
students at each school. The schools rank in order from North City Tech
(majority minority) with a mean of 4.10, North Village Prep (majority
white) with a mean of 4.07, South City Honors (majority minority) with
a mean student score of 4.06, and South County Prep (majority white)
with a mean of 3.74. Overall, the students at South County Prep (the
white school located in SCC) reported significantly lower levels of cultural flexibility than those students at the other three schools. No significant differences existed in terms of students’ self-esteem among the four
schools. However, when I looked more closely at the scores of African
American, or black, students within the schools, the results changed.
Table 3 also shows that black students attending North City Tech and
South City Honors, the two majority-minority schools in Northeast and
South, respectively, report significantly higher levels of cultural flexibility—4.10 and 4.09, respectively—than black students attending the white
schools in both regions. These students also appear to have significantly
Cultural Flexibility Self-Esteem
North Capital City
North City Tech HS (majority minority)
North Village Prep HS (majority white)
4.10
4.07
2.97
2.98
South Capital City
South City Honors HS (majority minority)
South County Prep (majority white)
4.06
3.74a 3.04
2.94
Black Students Only
NCC: North City Tech HS (majority minority)
North Village Prep HS (majority white)
SCC: South City Honors HS (majority minority)
South County Prep (majority white)
4.10b
3.84
4.10b
3.66
3.13b
3.00
3.10b
2.94
White Students Only
NCC: North City Tech HS (majority minority)
North Village Prep HS (majority white)
SCC: South City Honors HS (majority minority)
South County Prep (majority white)
4.25c
4.15
4.05c
3.88
2.91
3.04
2.92
2.97
a South County Prep’s students, on average, have significantly lower cultural flexibility than those at the
other schools; the difference is significant at the .001 level. b Differences by school type are significant at the .001 level. c Differences by region are significant at the .05 level.
Table 3. Mean Scores of Students’ Cultural Flexibility and Self-Esteem: By School
1546 Teachers College Record
greater self-esteem than their black peers in the two majority-white
schools. As for white students in the study, significant differences do not
exist by school type, but rather by region: White students in the two
northeastern schools report more culturally flexibility than their counterparts in the southern schools. No significant differences in self-esteem
exist for white students by school type and region. Notably, it appears that
when Whites are the minority (at both North City Tech and South City
Honors), they report lower self-esteem than blacks.
STUDENT TRAITS AND ACADEMIC PARTICIPATION
Table 4 reports the results of analyses of all students and regressions of our
measures of school type and other predictors, including students’ preferential attitudes about same-race schools and neighborhoods; parents’
Table 4. Regression Coefficients of School Type, Region, Self-Esteem, and Other Selected Variables on
Cultural Flexibility: All Students
Model
1 23
School Type (majority minority = 1) .21 (.07)*** .17** (.08) .09 (.07)
Student Attitudes
Preference for same-race school -.23** (.09)
Preference for same-race neighborhood -.14 (.08)
Preference for same-SES school -.18 (.09)**
Preference for same-SES neighborhood -.11 (.08)
Self-esteem .22*** (.07)
In AP or honors courses .25*** (.08)
.02 (.02)
No. of extracurricular activities
Controls -.02 (.03)
.00 (.03) -.03 (.06)
Parent educational background .07 (.05) -.09 (.12)
Student GPA -.07 (.12) -.12 (.08)
Asian -.09 (.08) -.09 (.11)
Black -.07 (.11) -.07 (.07)
Hispanic -.10 (.07) .24*** (.08)
Gender (male = 1) .24*** (.08)
Region (Northeast = 1)
Intercept 3.88*** 3.67*** 3.46***
R2 .01 .04 .14
N 648 612 608
Note. Metric coefficients (standard errors).
***p < .00. **p < .05.
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1547
educational background; student GPA; self-esteem; AP/honors course
participation and number of extracurricular activities; gender; and
region. Model 1 reveals that there exist some significant differences in
students’ cultural flexibility based on where they are in school, in either
a majority-minority or majority-white school. Students attending majority
racial and ethnic minority schools are more likely to have higher cultural
flexibility (b = .21; p < .00). Model 2 shows a reduction in the regression
coefficient for school type and suggests that region location accounts for
about 20% of the difference between students in majority-white versus of
majority-minority schools, however. Students attending the Northern
Table 5. Regression Coefficients of School Type, Region, Self-Esteem, and Other Selected Variables on
Cultural Flexibility: Black Students Only
Model
1 23
School Type (of color = 1) .39 (.11) *** .34 (.11)*** .19 (.12)
Student Attitudes
Preference for same-race school -.14 (.13)
Preference for same-race neighborhood -.16 (.14)
Preference for same-SES school -.16 (.14)
Preference for same-SES neighborhood -.15 (.14)
Self-esteem .24 (.11)*
In AP or honors courses .22 (.13)#
No. of extracurricular activities .05 (.04)
Controls
.00 (.05)
Parent educational background .11 (.09) .00 (.04)
-.14 (.12)
Student GPA .17 (.13) .01 (.09)
Gender (male = 1) -.13 (.12)
Region (Northeast = 1)
.19 (.13)
Intercept 3.71*** 3.43*** 3.03***
R2 .04 .06 .15
N 263 259 257
Note. Metric coefficients (standard errors).
***p < .00. **p < .05.
1548 Teachers College Record
schools report higher cultural flexibility than those in the South.
The effect of school type disappears as other significant predictors such
as racial attitudes, self-esteem, and course-taking patterns are entered
into the model. Preferences for same-race (b = -.23; p < .05) and same-SES
peers (b=-.18; p < .05) in school are negatively associated with cultural
flexibility. In contrast, participation in AP and honors courses is a positive
and significant predictor of cultural flexibility for the students (b = .25; p
< =.00), as well as self-esteem (b = .22; p < =.00). These results suggest that
different student organization, practices, and viewpoints are likely in
operation at the different schools (see more discussion following).
These patterns change somewhat when I disaggregate and examine the
effects of the predictors on black students’ cultural flexibility only.
Initially, the main story of Table 5 is that those students in the majorityminority schools report significantly higher cultural flexibility scores than
their counterparts in majority-white schools. Differences between students in these two school contexts appear to be fully accounted for by the
differential in self-esteem (b = .24; p < .05), a significant predictor of cultural flexibility in Model 3. Black students at South City Honors (SCC)
and North City Tech (NCC) have higher self-esteem, as mentioned.
Further, those black students enrolled in either AP or honors courses
show a modest though greater level of cultural flexibility than those
enrolled in non-AP and nonhonors classes. Black students’ preferential
attitudes about the racial and ethnic composition of their schools and
neighborhoods have no influence on their cultural flexibility.
Table 6 tells yet another story. For white students, the school type does
not matter. Rather, those white students in both majority-minority and
majority- white schools have similar degrees of cultural flexibility, all
other factors held constant. Their preferential attitudes about their
schools’ and neighborhoods’ racial, ethnic, and class composition do not
matter, either. The statistically significant predictors of cultural flexibility
found among this group were participation in AP or honors courses (b =
.30; p< .05) and regional location (b = .25; p < .05).
UNDERSTANDING THE CULTURAL FLEXIBILITY THROUGH
INTERVIEWS AND ETHNOGRAPHY
The findings from the survey data may be further understood once contextualized by the ethnographic data collected in field notes and gathered over hundreds of hours in the schools weekly by the team of
researchers. Any visitor walking into all four schools that our research
team observed over a semester would find some evidence of racial and
ethnic separation within peer groups; this appeared to operate as a
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1549
“natural” social condition, the result of shared histories and cultural narratives, and social and economic locations. At each school, students move
through the hallways en masse, and in some schools, they even share
some classrooms. Still, when it comes to their friendships and whom they
hang with during the lunch breaks, students organize themselves often in
same-race or same-ethnicity groups (see also Tatum 1997).
When we asked students about why their peers tend to gravitate to their
own racial or ethnic group, we generally heard a matter-of-fact response
that it is not about “race” but that students separate into groups based on
their shared interests. The following excerpt from a group interview in
which Henry, an Asian American boy, and David, an African American
Table 6. Regression Coefficients of School Type, Region, Self-Esteem, and Other Selected Variables on
Cultural Flexibility: White Students Only
Model
1 23
School Type (of color = 1) .17 (.12) .13 (.13) .06 (.13)
Student Attitudes
Preference for same-race school -.19 (.14)
Preference for same-race neighborhood -.18 (.15)
Preference for same-SES school -.19 (.16)
Preference for same-SES neighborhood .09 (.13)
Self-esteem .04 (13)
In AP or honors courses .30 (.05)**
No. of extracurricular activities .06 (.05)
Controls
Parent educational background -.01 (.05) -.06 (.05)
.01 (.09)
Student GPA .02 (.12) -.14 (.10)
.25** (.11)
Gender (male = 1) .10 (.12)
Region (Northeast = 1)
.25 (.11)**
Intercept 3.99*** 3.87*** 4.15***
R2 .01 .03 .06
N 206 203 202
Note. Metric coefficients (standard errors). ***p < .00. **p < .05.
1550 Teachers College Record
boy, participated at North City Tech High School (a majority minority
school in NCC) reveals this sentiment:
Henry: Yeah, like if you ever like all come to our cafeteria, like
you realize that like a lot of it is by subdivisions, like different
races.
Interviewer: Really?
Henry: It’ not like . . .it’s not like that we’re separated. It’s just…
David: It’s just like you can see like different divisions. That’s the
group that people hang out with.
Interviewer: But what do you think leads to that? Like how does
that happen?
Henry: Well things like for when they first come to the school,
they really don’t open up much so they just stay with their own
group. You’re used to people you already are accustomed ‘cause
people who share the same belief and whatever, stuff like, it’s easier to get along with people.
Henry and David attribute ethnic segmentation at lunch in the cafeteria to shared beliefs, identities, and tastes. They also confirm what we
already know from prior research about racial and ethnic segregation in
terms of friendship (Moody 2002). But how can we come to understand
why the students at the majority-minority schools demonstrate more cultural flexibility than those in white schools? What were some of the differences among the schools that could be associated with this difference?
I suggest that some explanation for these differences in cultural flexibility may owe to the actual organization of students within these schools.
Both observations and interviews revealed that cultural flexibility is a
function of individual student choice and qualities. Unflappably, students
remarked that they get along and are friends with students from different social and cultural backgrounds. “Granted, it’s hard to . . . I mean, the
cultural difference causes a language barrier. I’ll be perfectly honest. I
can’t speak Ebonics worth crap,” said Nick (a white male senior at South
County Prep) with a laugh. “I don’t understand what they’re saying sometimes. That doesn’t mean I like them any more or less as a person. If
they’re belligerent and stupid and they’re white, I’m going to hate them
just as much if they’re belligerent and stupid and they’re black.” Making
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1551
his own personal decision, Nick claimed to be a racial equal opportunist
in his choices for friends and associates.
Still, the kind of student who would traverse social and cultural boundaries required certain traits. Nick’s schoolmates, three African American
females—all graduating seniors at the time—exposed a particular factor
that facilitates cultural flexibility:
Interviewer: Okay. Would you say that it’s easy or difficult to
become friends with someone from another background?
Angela: It depends on the type of person.
Tasha: Like if you, like, easy going and can really decide to really get
into anything, stuff like that, it’s not gonna be hard, but if you like
have like totally different, you come from like totally different
background, then it’s going to probably be a little different . . .
little hard to get into.
Interviewer: So what group are you all…?
Sherry: The Black people. Yeah.
Tasha: So we all just hang out together. That’s how it is. We just
all hang out together.
These young women collectively refer to the culturally flexible person
as one who is “easy-going” and who “can really get into anything”—
namely, move across social and cultural boundaries. Tasha, Angela, and
Sherry hint at the strength of a person with a strong sense of self and ease
in moving across myriad social and cultural lines. However, they admit
that they hang together and find it difficult to interact across racial lines.
And they are not alone, which the survey data confirmed. On average,
the African American students at South County Prep scored lowest in
both self-reported cultural flexibility and self-esteem (see Table 3). Later
on in the conversation, this same group of girls contrasted themselves to
“Josh,” an African American male who had effectively moved across social
lines and accomplished a rare feat in this southern majority-white school.
Josh had been elected “Mr. South County Prep,” and the girls in the
group made sense of Josh’s success because he was able to participate and
excel in an extracurricular activity that was symbolically associated with
white students.
1552 Teachers College Record
Tasha: I mean, he was athletic but he really went like, no, no . . .
Angela: Soccer?
Tasha: Yeah.
Sherry: He played soccer?
Tasha: Yes.
Interviewer: Soccer gave him a lot of. . .
Angela: Yes, well, especially with the white people.
Tasha: Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.
Sherry: Oh, wow.
Tasha: With the white people, you know, they hang out and, you
know, he got to know people so they got the majority vote over
what we did.
Josh had expanded his extracurricular and social tastes beyond the
repertoire of tastes and interests that Tasha, Sherry, and Angela said were
demarcated as “black” by many of his black peers at South County Prep.
These young women attribute Josh’s ability to participate and excel in
soccer—which was explicitly considered a “white”-dominant sport in
their high school—as the reason for his popularity among his mostly
white schoolmates.
In direct contrast to students at South County Prep, many more students at North City Tech and South City Honors (the majority-minority
schools) asserted their cultural flexibility. Beyond simply mentioning
their willingness to cross racial and ethnic boundaries, both black and
white students proudly described the bases of their cultural flexibility. For
instance, Cherise, an African American ninth grader at North City Tech,
spoke frankly about why she had decided to enroll in a Chinese language
class at school: most of her friends, since seventh grade, were Asian
American—Chinese, to be specific—and she wanted to converse with
them in their language.
Cherise’s was not an exceptional case. Two of her schoolmates, both
white high seniors at North City Tech (one an Italian-Irish American girl
and the other an Irish Catholic) who perceived themselves as “minorities”
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1553
in this predominantly black, Asian, and Latino school, discussed their
own cultural flexibility.
Natalia: I was the only Italian-Irish girl and everybody thought I
was some type of Latina so they were like, “Oh, what are you” and
they thought I was Cuban and white. Like, “No. I’m Italian.” So
then everyone thought that I was in the Mafia because they saw
my father. [laughter] . . . . I hang out with a lot more Latino people just because, I don’t know, so I like learn how to speak
Spanish and stuff. . .
Later in this same group conversation with white seniors, Anthony provided a further example of why adaptation to being a “minority” at North
City Tech entailed some cultural flexibility:
Anthony: It was kind of hard being the only White kid around for
a little while but you got used to it so . . .
Interviewer: Can you say more about that? Like was it . . . was it
socially that it was hard? Was it like trying to kinda feel like you
belong here? Like what parts about it do you feel like made it difficult in the beginning?
Anthony: Well, personally, I came from a really, really small allItalian Catholic school. Hard core, northern . . . think everything
about Italian people and it’s there, and that was all and then I
went to Cuomo [pseudonym] for a year and it was all Italian or
Latino people and then I came here and it was totally different.
Like everything was just different and you have to get used to different characteristics in cultures and I didn’t know what a
Guyanese person was. I didn’t know . . . I had no . . . I went to a
Catholic school and they still use the word “Oriental.” Like, I didn’t know of anything else. So you just have to get used to things
like that.
Interviewer: Do you feel like, though . . . like having to get used
to that affects how people do in school?
Anthony: I think it makes them better because it broadens their
horizons.
Anthony discussed the values he felt that North City Tech offered him
1554 Teachers College Record
in terms of its racial and ethnic diversity—even if it meant being one of
the few white students attending the school. For him, experiences at
North City Tech were making him a “better” person because he broadened his “horizons,” and his interactions with diverse peers made him
more culturally flexible. Anthony’s, Natalia’s, and Cherise’s admissions
about their pursuits of interculturalism converge with what the survey
results tell us: North City Tech High students, on average, scored highest
on the cultural flexibility scale. More specifically, white students at North
City Tech were the highest-scoring racial subgroup. All in all, these three
youth explicitly mentioned something about their school’s social climate
that encouraged them not only to embrace its racial and ethnic diversity
but also to actively participate in other ethnocultural practices—a requisite of cultural flexibility.
Like Natalia and Anthony at North City Tech in NCC, whites at South
City Honors either often characterized themselves or were characterized
as getting along with black students. “The white people here get along
with everyone else because most of them ‘act black,’” said Maya, one of
South City Honors’ African American students. While Maya’s perception
of “acting black” did not correspond necessarily to shared dress styles,
her perception was not too far from the reality that some white students
described for themselves. Meredith, a white junior, explained, “Well,
being white here is not a big deal . . . no one really pays attention to me
being white . . . they do tease me about being preppy.” I asked her what
she means about being preppy. She said, “You know what I mean, polo
shirts with loafers and jeans, the Abercrombie and Fitch look . . . They are
just joking.” When Meredith was asked who her friends were, she said,
“All of my friends here are black and so is my boyfriend.” Proximity was
not the principal cause for getting along; rather, Meredith was actively
crossing racial and cultural boundaries through friendships and an interracial romance.
WIDER REGIONAL AND COMMUNITY DYNAMICS MATTER, TOO
Statistically, South City Honors students overall reported levels of cultural
flexibility similar to those of North City Tech’s students. Moreover, South
City Honors’ black students, like those at North City Tech, reported significantly higher self-esteem than their racial counterparts at North
Village Prep and South County Prep. Still, while both black and white students at predominantly African American South City Honors High admitted that racial boundaries were permeable within school, they could
not escape the historical, divisive racial climate that has characterized
their school’s and communities’ regional location. South City Honors,
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1555
formerly all-white until the late 1970s, had not been immune to “white
flight” into private and surrounding county district schools. Yet, some
Whites remained at South City Honors—noteworthy for decades because
of its strong academic programs, even in its incarnation as a predominantly African American high school. Administrators, teachers, and students knew that South City Honors’ historic reputation and consistent
production of strong test results kept some white families (even those of
some faculty at a nearby prestigious liberal arts college) invested in this
SCC school.
Still, students perceived that sanctions could ensue for too much racial
mixing in SCC. Adam, a white senior and classmate of Meredith’s at
South City Honors, discussed at length his interpretation of a situation in
which he was penalized for socializing intimately across racial lines:
I was talking to [the coach at the local college] and everything
was going good . . . we were e-mailing back and forth. He’s just
like, “I’m going to have you come by Monday, Tuesday or
Wednesday to sign for your scholarship.” And that Monday I was
out with my girlfriend who happens to be black, and it just so
happened we was [sic] at the mall, and he happened to be there.
He didn’t . . . I guess he didn’t . . . we were at this little booth or
whatever and he was like, “Hey, you!” You know, he called me
over and I came over, and I talked to him and he introduced me
to his . . . I don’t know if it was his wife or girlfriend at the time.
I was like, “Hold on just a second. I want to introduce you to my
girlfriend,” and she walked over . . . he just . . . there was this look
on his face like “I can’t believe what you’re” . . . you know, that I
was dating a black girl, you know? And he never called me . . . for
that Tuesday or Wednesday, he never called me back. He hasn’t
said word to me since then, and he ended up signing my friend,
and not that I’m not glad my friend got a scholarship and that.
It’s just that I know that I was better than my friend in that aspect
and I really do believe that that is the reason that he didn’t. . .
Adam described himself as the better player compared with his friend:
[My friend is] another white guy from [another city] and he . . .
and we were playing soccer pretty much the same amount of
years but I just naturally was a little . . . you know, a little better
than him . . . I was just a little faster. I had a little bit better touch.
You know, I just read the game a little bit more.
1556 Teachers College Record
Thus, Adam could only reason that the coach failed to follow up on a
promise to recruit him because he introduced the coach to a girlfriend
“who happens to be black.” Along with schoolmates Fred (white male)
and Jeremy (black male), Adam described how racial dynamics of the
region, families, and communities countervailed what flexibility in social
boundary crossing that South City Honors’ school environment enabled:
Fred: At South City Honors for . . . [pause] you know, people
tend to disperse to who they’re more related to and I guess being
white and the minority [laughs] . . . is, I don’t know . . . I guess
you can relate maybe a little . . . easier to white people and it’s
kind of easier to get along with them but . . . uh . . . and it’s kind
of how it is but . . . uh . . . I mean, everyone is cool. Everyone is
generous, you know, they’re good people and it’s…it’s kind of
like a school friendship but away from school you don’t really
keep the same friendships and I don’t know.
Jeremy: It’s harder for some people to accept you outside of
school. I can say, “What’s up?” and hang out with you in the
lunchroom but, you know, I can’t go out on the weekends with
you or something like that.
Adam: Yeah. Their parents might not be comfortable with you
coming over their house or whatever. It’s just . . . it’s just there. I
mean, and that’s still the way it is here because there’s still a
little bit of racism.
Fred: Really. I don’t know. South City Honors doesn’t have too
much . . .
Adam (interjects): Yeah. South City Honors doesn’t but, you
know, outside is what I’m saying.
According to a report by Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lei (2004) of the
Civil Rights Project, most white students, except in the South and
Southwest, have little contact with minority students. Adam, Fred, and
Meredith—white southern youth—are some exceptions. And they
informed us how they negotiated their relationships with their African
American peers. At least for them, racial intergroup relations appeared
to achieve some of the social goals of the Brown decision. However, these
youth also understood how macro-social relations could negate what
advancement in interracial relations they made in school. Southern
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1557
white (and black) students had a more difficult time maintaining different racial and ethnic ties outside of school. These revelations lend insight
to the finding that region explained a significant percent of the variation
between northeastern and southern white students’ cultural flexibility in
this study.
SOCIAL ORGANIZATION IN SCHOOLS AND CULTURAL FLEXIBILITY
All four schools in this study were selected for their relative overall high
performance in their respective districts. In theory, each provided a better academic “opportunities context” for its students than surrounding
schools in the districts. Yet, access to academic opportunities varied, and
the differential levels of access in the schools with different racial and
ethnic compositions appear to have some association with students’
propensity to cross social boundaries. That is, the social organization and
climate of the schools differed significantly for African American and
white students in the majority-white and majority-minority schools. Our
data suggest unequivocally that African American students in the majority-minority schools (North City Tech and South City Honors) had significantly different educational experiences than their counterparts in the
majority-white schools (South County Prep and North Village Prep).
First, one survey question—using Likert response categories (1 =
strongly agree, 4 = strongly disagree)—asked students to respond to the following statement: “I feel like I am a part of this school.” Thirty-eight percent of North Village Prep’s and 60% of South County Prep’s black
students agreed with this statement, averaging 49%, compared with 83%
at North City Tech and 72% at South City Honors, for an average of 77%.
In short, the black students at North Village Prep and South County Prep
felt less incorporated into their schools than their peers who were
enrolled at majority-minority schools.
In the majority-white schools, students appeared to have more physical
and academic distance among themselves than those in the two majorityminority schools. In an explicit discussion of racial and ethnic boundaries, Ashley, a white female participating in a coed, all-white 11th-grade
group interview at South County Prep, pointed out that the social organization of the students in academic and extracurricular influenced her
relationships with schoolmates:
Interviewer: So what do your individual groups look like?
Ashley: We have like kind of blurry lines a lot of the times . . . but
like, you know, you have that group and you can’t really like
1558 Teachers College Record
relate to that group. You can individually, but like not as a whole
group, but a lot of the other groups just like they’ve learned their
lines a lot. Like we have a lot of people that are in the AP classes
and they hang out together a lot and there’s like theater groups
and stuff like that and they hang out and just like random small
groups from like different . . . just from being in high school
together for so long and stuff like that.
Again, Ashley’s views and those of others with whom we spoke confirmed what we know from the research on multiracial schools and sociability (Hallinan and Williams 1989; Hallinan and Teixeira 1987; Moody
2002; Schofield 1991). Differential levels of participation by groups can
concretize the “lines,” boundaries, or perceived differences to the point
that they can endure throughout high school. At South County Prep,
white students dominated not only the most academically rigorous
courses but also the most visible, high-status extracurricular activities,
including cheerleading, the Young Republicans Club, and baseball. In an
informal poll I took, teachers designated only about 5 (out of 292)
African American students considered bright enough to be enrolled in
advanced classes. Meanwhile, survey data show that white students were
more than 1 1/2 times as likely to be enrolled in either an AP or honors
courses as their black schoolmates—62% and 38%, respectively.
Similarly, at majority-white North Village Prep High School hundreds
of miles to the north, students commented similarly on how their schools
might influence their ability to move across social boundaries more easily and frequently. Will, a graduating white senior, lamented what he
found to be one of the most negative aspects of his high school, which
had participated in a voluntary desegregated school for decades:
Interviewer: If you were able to change one thing about your
school, what would that be?
Will: I think one thing I would change is I would try to make this
school more welcoming for . . . all people. I kind of, I mean, as
with any high school, probably, you tend to form . . . ..tend to
break down into groups I mean, I hang out with people who do
a lot of the same activities as me and, you know, get the same
grades and are in the same classes, and I think that’s one disadvantage of having kind of tracked classes. I’m glad that we don’t
have them in English or history. I think that helps a little bit but,
yeah, I’m certainly glad that we have the . . . via the [Be the]
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1559
Change program this year, I think . . . I really think that will make
a difference in the school.
Interviewer: You do?
Will: Yeah. I really do. I mean, I participated in one of the days
and I thought it was an amazing experience but I think people . . .
I think it’s . . . if not already, then in the future it will help people to kind of recognize others and not just judge them. It will
probably take a while for it to make a really big difference in the
school.
Will informed the interviewer that the lack of diversity of the students
participating in certain extracurricular activities and select classes
impeded student interaction across racial lines in school. At North
Village Prep, 71% of white students were enrolled in at least either one
honors or AP course, compared with 30% of their black peers. In Will’s
case, the opportunity for social contact across racial lines was limited
because of his course placement (and, no doubt, the small percentage of
students of color at North Village Prep). Nonetheless, Will and some of
his fellow students (of various races) and some school administrators
demonstrated their willingness to build relations across racial and ethnic
lines through other conduits that, as Will said, could potentially “make a
really big difference.” When I arrived at the school one late winter morning, an administrator informed me that there was a special assembly to
introduce a program shown on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The four grades
were divided and assigned spaces in the auditorium (seniors and sophomores) and the gym (freshmen and juniors). Students milled into the
auditorium, and at the door they were handed small pieces of colored
paper and asked to sit according to their color. Despite these explicit
instructions, I observed that students sat exactly as they had come in—
with their friends, and generally by race.
Two student facilitators were standing on the stage: Byron, a mediumheight white male senior wearing a backwards baseball cap, and April, a
petite African American female senior. They explained how North
Village Prep High School had agreed to take the challenge to discuss difference and teens’ teasing one another for various traits, and then they
showed a short film. The poignant Oprah-esque film was shot at Monroe
High School in Detroit, a multiracial/ethnic high school. The “Be the
Change” program consisted of an all-day retreat centered on small-group
open discussions in which participants told something about themselves
1560 Teachers College Record
that others did not know. Participants discussed numerous issues ranging
from gender differences, to parental issues, to income and illness, to
race/ethnicity, to sexuality. For Will, participation in this new program
was an “amazing experience.”
Notably, white students at North Village Prep High reported significantly higher cultural flexibility than their black peers there. In addition
to the significantly wider socioeconomic gap that existed among African
American, Latino, and white students at North Village Prep, the cultural
and educational opportunities gap loomed large as well. Black and
Latino students at North Village Prep did not reap the advantages of
attending a well-resourced school with strong parent support and
fundraising. For example, in the spring of 2007, the air was abuzz with
the eager anticipation of students and a few fortunate teachers who were
preparing to head to Japan on a band and orchestra exchange trip for a
two weeks. While one of the only two black teachers, Mr. Moman, was
going on the trip as a chaperon, none of the African American and Latino
students who participated in the Voluntary Desegregation Program
(VDP) at North Village Prep were headed to Japan. Yearly, students took
trips to Europe, Asia, and Latin and Central America after numerous car
washes, bake sales, and parental financial support. However, North
Village Prep’s black and Latino students—the majority of whom are
lower income and voluntarily bussed to the school via the VDP—either
could not afford to go on these trips or were not financially subsidized by
the school to participate.
Moreover, at various break times and during free periods, the VDP student participants socialized and took study breaks in two rooms where
only they gathered. From completing paper assignments, to getting tutorial assistance, to playing chess and talking politics, to merely hanging out
with one another, most VDP spent at least some time in the “VDP” room,
away and separate from their white peers. Beyond their class time with
white peers in their general comprehensive and college preparatory
classes, nearly all the students of color at North Village Prep—namely,
the VDP participants—had limited social contact with white students outside of class time.
As I mentioned earlier, almost all of North Village Prep High’s students
are bussed into the district from the urban center and surrounding areas
of North Capital City. The lack of residential and community proximity
very likely limited the narrowing of that social distance gap—the most
frequent issue brought up by black students in our interviews at North
Village Prep. Angela, a graduating senior, told one of the researchers, “It
is hard to hang out with North Village Prep kids because I live so far away.
Once, when I was playing basketball, I slept over at one of their houses. I
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1561
stopped playing basketball because the practice is from 6–8 at night, and
there is no bus. I don’t like staying there overnight.” Residential segregation not only impeded Angela’s ability to build relationships with her
white peers outside of class, but also it limited her ability to participate in
extracurricular sports.
In stark comparison, we found that at both North City Tech and South
City Honors (both majority minority), black students’ academic placement in the schools had a broader range, from the most accelerated and
advanced placement courses to the most remedial courses. In addition,
black and white students were enrolled in either AP or honors courses at
the same rate: 75% and 76%, respectively, at South City Honors AP program, and 50 % and 42 %, respectively, at North City Tech—two schools
known for their strong promotion of academic rigor. Our observations
and notes provide much more vivid descriptions of students interacting
across racial and ethnic lines. For example, at North City Tech, we spent
some time observing Mr. Ponte’s AP Physics class, an interactive and lively
group of 30 students (from researcher’s notes):
The class is fairly racially mixed, and also fairly balanced in
terms of gender. Kids sat at mixed tables, interacting across race
and gender. A Black male, for example, upon entering the room,
gave pounds and handshakes to a whole group of very diverse
boys, and kids seemed to work across race and gender in supporting one another in solving the assigned problems.
Similarly, at South City Honors, we observed classroom make-ups in the
advanced placement classes that differed greatly from those nearby at
South County Prep and North City Tech (in NCC). The following
description (from researcher’s notes) was not atypical:
I attend the AP English class of the 2007 ACT Star Teacher Cate
Gilman. As I walk into her class at the end of the 1st block. This
2nd period class is one of 22 students: 14 Black females; 3 Black
males; 2 White females; and 3 White males. I am familiar with
some of the faces. In Gilman’s class, today is AP practice test
focus. We work for about 20 minutes on a difficult prose passage
written about two ideals and how they are represented in the
upper class during an earlier historical era. The students,
Williams, and I then quietly answer the questions. As they work,
Williams walks around and pass out cards marked with the number of a particular question and with remarks like “you got #1
correct; you’re a genius!”
1562 Teachers College Record
At both North City Tech and South City Honors, not only did many
African American students share equal academic status with White students, but they also participated in diverse extracurricular activities. At
South City Honors, black students also participated in Model UN, a program for high school students that teaches them about the organization
and international policy-building of the United Nations, and the
National Forensics League. Both of these programs allow students to
meet other students from myriad places and to compete locally and
nationally.
In sum, both North Village Prep (NCC) and South County Prep (SCC)
had stronger material “opportunities contexts”—that is, they were
wealthier and well-resourced schools. At the same time, the black students enrolled at these two schools were significantly less likely to have
access to, to be encouraged to participate in, or to avail themselves of,
such opportunities as compared with their peers at the two majority
minority schools: North City Tech (NCC) and South City Honors (SCC).
The latter schools, in comparison, showed breadth in terms of student
participation across myriad social lines.
DISCUSSION
Few studies, if any, have explicitly examined the relationship between students’ cultural flexibility, or their propensity to move across different
social and cultural boundaries, and their individual and academic traits.
I found significant differences in cultural flexibility between students
attending the majority-minority schools and those attending majoritywhite schools in this study, with some of that variation owing to differences in students’ participation in school, their classroom placement,
and their self-esteem. Furthermore, white students in the Northeast were
more culturally flexible than those from the South.
Self-esteem is a significant and positive predictor of cultural flexibility
for black students, and those black students enrolled in the majorityminority schools in the study revealed higher self-esteem than their racial
counterparts in the two majority-white schools. Meta-analyses of hundreds of studies reveal that blacks consistently report higher self-esteem
than whites, which is attributable to cultural differences, higher levels of
individualism, and protection against stigma (Gray-Little and Hafdahl
2000; Twenge and Crocker 2002).
11 Furthermore, research shows consistent differences among race, self-esteem, and regional location (i.e., population density) such that African Americans are found to show higher
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1563
levels of self-esteem in the South than in other regions of the country
(Twenge and Crocker 2002). In this study, however, I found that southern African American students attending a majority-white school had significantly lower self-esteem than their African American peers attending
a majority-minority school 15 miles down the road.
Prior studies found that black students in desegregated schools have
higher self-esteem and confidence and do better in school than those in
segregated contexts (Crain, Mahard, and Narot 1982; Wells and Crain
1994). In contrast, Rosenberg (1985) found that unlike in segregated
schools, black children in majority-white schools perceive and experience
more distance in their social comparisons with white classmates. The
results from this study confirm that black students attending high-performing majority-minority schools in two urban areas both in the
Northeast and South possess significantly higher self-esteem than their
counterparts in nearby majority-white schools within these same regions.
In addition, these results highlight some of the processes within
schools that appear to be associated with school composition and social
organization via classes and extracurricular activities. Among all students,
especially whites, placement in either AP or honors courses appeared to
be positively related to cultural flexibility. This result signals something
about the academic experiences in such classes. Scholars and researchers
inform us about the differential levels of curricular content and exposure, creativity, analytical rigor, pedagogical techniques, and support of
student curiosity in academically rigorous courses versus those in “regular” or standard classes (Anyon 1980; Bowles and Gintis 1976; Gamoran
1987; Oakes 1985). Studies have shown, for instance, that Advanced
Placement and international baccalaureate programs in some highpoverty urban minority high schools provide the opportunity for students
to learn and use various cultural codes (Kyburg, Hertberg-Davis, and
Callahan 2007). Such classroom-level factors collectively may augment
cultural flexibility. Paradoxically, while exposure to AP and honors
classes—both proxies for a certain type of classroom experience—are
positively associated with cultural flexibility, they constitute an organizational structure highly correlated with race and inequity in many schools
(Oakes 1985; Wells and Serna 1996). And as students mentioned
throughout their discussions with us, the underrepresentation of black
(and other racial and ethnic minority) students in these classes, particularly at majority-white schools, foments social and cultural distance (see
also Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 2005).
While most studies tend to focus on students of color—namely African,
Latino/a, Asian, and Native American as the “minority” (Schofield 1991),
1564 Teachers College Record
this study’s findings highlight some of the social and cultural experiences
of both black and white students in the “minority” at mixed-race schools.
The minority experience works differently in minority-dominant and
majority-white schools for black and white students, however. Based on
the illustrative examples provided earlier, black students have significantly different access to particular resources and status groups in majority-white schools compared with majority-minority ones. In the former,
certain academic or extracurricular practices may become racialized and
deemed “white” or appear outside the cultural repertoires of black students (Mickelson and Velasco 2006; Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 2005).
In comparison, white students, as the minority in schools, benefit from
their privilege and high racial status or “capital” (Lewis 2003) not only in
wider society but also within schools. They too experience disproportionate representation in high-status classes; theirs, however, is a matter of
overrepresentation, not underrepresentation.
Over the course of our field work, educators at both North City Tech
and South City Honors described how school leaders made deliberate
attempts to avoid “white flight” by maintaining academically rigorous
programs and yielding strong educational results in order to appeal to
white parents and maintain a significant white student presence in the
schools. Furthermore, both of the majority-minority schools had white
(male) principals; and some political tensions ensued among the staff
around this fact. Disgruntled African American teachers at North City
Tech, for instance, discussed their beliefs about how school officials
actively recruited white students to the school and even accused the principal of giving token gifts, such as promising leadership positions in student organizations to white students, to keep the school appealing to
them. Scholars argue that the power of whiteness as a privileged racial
status (Doane 1999; Gallagher 1999), as “capital,” in the United States
often dictates that white students be accorded a higher level of respect
and privilege that their black peers in the majority-white schools do not
necessarily receive (Lewis 2003).
Finally, for white students, these data suggest another story about how
the social climate in their regional locales is associated with cultural flexibility. More research is needed, however, to ascertain whether the pattern of greater cultural flexibility among students in northeastern
schools compared with those in southern schools would hold.
Nonetheless, this pattern parallels findings about significant differences
in the prevalence of liberal and conservative viewpoints between northern and southern Whites, respectively (Schuman et al. 1998).
Although neither self-reported grade point averages nor test scores
(analyses not provided here) proved to be significant predictors of
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1565
cultural flexibility in the regression models, one may not be able to fully
dismiss some association between academic experiences and the differences in sociocultural experiences between black students at majorityminority and majority-white schools. As Table 1 shows, the black-white
test score differentials in at North City Tech and South City Honors (two
majority-minority high schools) were significantly lower than those in the
two majority-white schools. Thus, African American students in the
majority-white schools were more likely to hold significantly lower academic statuses than their peers in majority-minority schools. In this study, I
had no way of knowing whether prior academic disparities existed among
these students across the four schools before enrolling in high school, or
whether their prior elementary and middle school experiences account
for some of their high school cultural orientations. What is known is that
many of the African American students at North Village Prep and South
County Prep began their schooling in their respective high-performing
school districts in elementary and middle school. Further research is warranted to ascertain the directionality and levels of influences among
these factors: students’ organization within their schools, placement,
their cultural flexibility, and their academic performances.
In addition, I did not find any patterns between family background and
black students’ cultural flexibility. While about 60% of the black students’
parents at one of the majority-minority schools, South City Honors, had
some college experience—ranging from community college to advanced
degrees—only about 32% of the black students’ parents at the other
majority-minority school, North City Tech, had some college experience.
Meanwhile, 54% and 47% of the black students’ parents at the two majority-white schools, South County Prep and North Village Prep, respectively, had some college experience. On average, higher percentages of
white students’ parents had some college experience—88%, 73%, and
70% at North Village Prep, South City Honors, and South County Prep,
respectively—except at North City Tech, where only 32% of the white students reported having parents with some college education.
This article began by recognizing the benefits of desegregation in the
aftermath of the Brown decision 50 years ago. At the same time, the findings in this study raise some critical questions for desegregation
researchers and its proponents to consider. Theory predicts that interracial and predominantly white schools increase the likelihood of disadvantaged and ethnic minority students being exposed to the “dominant”
forms of social and cultural capital. At the same time, researchers and
critics of desegregation’s efforts since the Brown decision have questioned whether majority-minority and predominantly white schools sufficiently improve the academic well-being of minority students (Dempsey
1566 Teachers College Record
and Noblit 1993; Leake and Faltz 1993). The consequences of intergroup
experiences are very much dependent on the structure of the contact situation, however. Hence, I would caution anyone against essentializing
and reading all schools with similar social compositions as the same.
Research informs us that variation in experiences exists even within
schools with similar social racial and ethnic compositions (Schofield
1991).
Critical identity issues may emerge for African American, or black, students educated in contexts in which their social and cultural realities are
either muted or invisible. In a developmental period when identity markers mean much to them, many students of color find meanings in how
classrooms and school activities are organized and the degrees to which
they are encouraged to interact with one another both socially and academically. Thus, the social factors for minority students’ high self-esteem
and cultural flexibility in majority-minority schools may have less to do
with whether these students sit in the classrooms with white students, and
more to do with whether positive familial, economic, and social supports
are in place, in addition to effective teachers and adequate educational
resources (Darling-Hammond 2007; Irvine 1990; Ladson-Billings 1994).
When students of color witness more evidence that their coethnic peers
cross the spectrum of ability levels and smartness, athleticism, and leadership potential, their reference group for achievement expands and
includes some representation of others who share similar social backgrounds to theirs.
While the relative academic gains of desegregated schools appear
greater than segregated schools—namely, minority-dominant ones
(Borman et al. 2004; Crain and Mahard 1983; Hanushek, Kain, and
Rivkin 2002; Mickelson 2003; Simmons et al. 1978)—further investigation into the positive social and cultural functions of the latter would provide more direction for the former. Students from minority-dominant
schools perceive that they can do well and achieve highly because affirming messages are deeply inculcated into them (Leake and Faltz 1993).
For example, Massey et al. (2003) found that black first-year college students who graduated from urban minority-dominant high schools and
later attended some of the nation’s most elite universities maintained
very strong senses of self and aspirations. Paradoxically, these students
maintained very high confidence levels despite having significantly lower
grades than their Asian and white peers in their first year of college.
While the authors of the aforementioned study may have labeled this selfconcept and achievement paradox as overconfidence, such findings still
indicate how different school contexts influence students’ identities and
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1567
self-concepts, and the boundaries they create within them.
Finally, a few caveats are in order about the limitations of this study.
First, the reader should note that the findings associated with black and
white students’ cultural flexibility are, at best, suggestive given the small
scale of the case studies (only four schools). Small-scale case studies—
even hybrid ones that incorporate survey research—are not meant to be
representative, however. Rather, they uncover social patterns and produce the bases for theoretical claims that can be further tested with largescale survey studies of students in different school contexts (Yin 2003).
Second, these analyses use only a categorical proxy for school type to differentiate among students. Further research on school contextual effects
on students’ cultural flexibility is warranted, and I hope that future quantitative studies can more systematically and better disentangle wider
school-level effects on cultural flexibility from individual-level ones.
Third, the mechanisms that operate for African American and white students may differ for Asian American, Latino\a, and Native American students. While the larger project included some these subgroups, the
numbers were too small to facilitate between-group analyses across all
four schools.
Overall, the main implication is that students’ cultural flexibility—as a
social and psychological process—may determine the extent to which
individuals of diverse backgrounds are really willing to realize the visions
of social integration. And further, from the students’ perspectives, their
own senses of self and organization in school have a great deal to do with
their tastes for cross-cultural participation. Students’ perspectives intimate that the latter factor (social organization among peers) has some
influence on the former (especially self-esteem). Further longitudinal
study is necessary to confirm this, however. Notwithstanding, these findings signal an area of critical research beyond the study of material and
academic outcomes of schooling, suggesting that the cross-cultural development of society’s youth has some relationship with their social experiences in school.
Acknowledgments
I wish to thank Grace Atukpawu, Jakeya Caruthers, Megan Holland, Kathleen O’Connor, Carla
Shalaby, Joshua Wakeham, Bernita Washington, Laura Wentworth, Dan Van Deman, and Charnise
Virgil for their tremendous research assistance, and Patricia Powell, Natasha Warikoo, and Amy Stuart
Wells for their helpful feedback in the development of this manuscript. I also want to thank the anonymous reviewers of TCR for their constructive critiques and guidance. I am also grateful for the research
support provided by a major grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.
1568 Teachers College Record
Notes
1. In addition, sociologist Elijah Anderson (2004) refers to the “cosmopolitan canopy”
(drawing from Robert Merton). His and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s (1997) conceptualizations of “cosmopolitanism” have some apparent differences. The cosmopolitan
canopy describes public places that diverse groups patronize and where they interact or
exchange information while behaving as businesspersons and consumers. Anderson writes
that the cosmopolitan canopy enables patrons to engage in “cultural tourism,” a symbolic
cross-cultural exchange and consumption of food, music, clothing, art, and so forth. The
cosmopolitan canopy is a social space that may provide an opportunity for diverse individuals to engage, though it may not necessarily change their a priori stereotypes or viewpoints
about other social groups. Appiah, in contrast, writes about a sensibility that runs deeper
than symbolic multiculturalism and urges individuals to take pleasure not only in cultural
tourism but also in the presence, communities, and homes of other, different peoples.
2. In comparison, multiculturalism, as practiced, enables a philosophy of “cultural difference” that enables principals and educators to be aware of cultural diversity but not necessarily to promote the cross-fertilization of diverse cultural styles or ways of life (Chisholm
1999).
3. Contrary to popular perceptions that Blacks are more collectivist in their orientations, multiple studies find that African Americans report significantly higher rates of individualism and similar rates of collectivism compared with European Americans, although
the effects are small. For more discussion of these concepts and findings, see Oyserman,
Coon, and Kemmelmeier (2002)
4. Pseudonyms are used throughout this article to protect the identities of the schools,
students, and staff and to mask their locations.
5. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core Public School Data
2005–2006 academic year.
6. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core Public School Data
2005–2006 academic year.
7. VDP is a state-funded program designed to eliminate racial imbalance through the
busing of children of color from NCC to public school systems in surrounding suburban
communities.
8. The response rate for the students participating in the survey ranged from 23% to
48% across the four schools, for an average response rate of 40%. Although within the
larger scheme of survey research, this response rate may appear modest, I am confident
that we gathered data from significantly wider and representative percentages of the student populations over the hundreds of hours of school observations and interviews.
9. Two other items were added to the survey but are not included in this scale: choosing to interact with students of a different sexual orientation and religion. Although the
results reported here do not change with these two items added, I have chosen to omit
them for conceptual reasons in defining students’ boundary crossing and multicultural participation.
10. Some researchers suggest that blacks have a propensity for using the “extreme”
answer categories in their responses to self-esteem questions and argue that insignificant
racial differences would ensue if answer categories were collapsed (Bachman & O’Malley
1984). Such research, however, has provided little to no theoretical account for why black
respondents have a tendency to be more “extreme” than other groups. Meanwhile, whites
maintain higher self-esteem than other racial groups in the United States (Gray-Little and
Hafdahl 2000; Twenge and Crocker 2002), although to our knowledge, no study has attrib-
Race and Cultural Flexibility 1569
uted whites’ higher self-esteem—as compared with American Indians, Hispanics, and Asian
Americans—to answering in the extreme. Meta-analyses of self-esteem studies show that
such race difference patterns are consistently strong, and social psychologists attribute
these differences to cultural differences, levels of individualism (as opposed to collectivism), and protective mechanisms to stigma, and location (Gray-Little and Hafdahl 2000;
Twenge and Crocker 2002).
11. The overall sample size of the larger study is 652, which includes Latino/a and
Asian students. For the purposes of these analyses, these two groups are excluded, since significant numbers of Asian and Latino/a students were not present in all four schools.
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PRUDENCE L. CARTER is associate professor of education and (by courtesy) sociology at Stanford University. Dr. Carter’s areas of research and
teaching focus on inequality and the sociology of education, with a particular focus on race, ethnicity, gender, culture, and identity. She is the
author of the award-winning book, Keepin’ It Real: School Success beyond
Black and White (Oxford University Press 2005). Other publications have
appeared in several journals, including Ethnic and Racial Studies, Review of
Educational Research, Sociology of Education, and Social Problems, and a host
of edited book collections. Her latest book project highlights a cross-
1574 Teachers College Record
national, comparative study of the interplay between mobility and culture
for students in desegregated high schools in South Africa and the United
States.

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