How Does Interracial Contact in Childhood Impact Adult Interracial Relationships?

Findings by Researchers at the University of Antwerp, the Paris School of Economics, and Freie Universität Berlin

No 299/2019 from Oct 14, 2019

According to a recent study, interracial contact in childhood leads to more diverse social relationships in adulthood. In particular, racial composition in schools impacts romantic relationships later in life. The findings were published by Prof. Luca Paolo Merlino, PhD (University of Antwerp), Prof. Liam Wren-Lewis, PhD (Paris School of Economics), and Max Friedrich Steinhardt (Freie Universität Berlin) in the Journal of Labor Economics (­26 ).

According to Max Friedrich Steinhardt, an obvious explanation might be that a racially diverse environment increases the opportunities for getting to know people of other races. However, this cannot be a decisive factor, as the researchers observed a correlation between childhood contacts and adult social relationships regardless of location, time, and social networks. The findings indicate that neither performance in school, educational level achieved, nor later success in the labor market is significant in determining whether adults have racially diverse social relationships. The empirical findings indicate that racial diversity in schools leads individuals to see race and color as being irrelevant for partner choice.

The researchers first evaluated data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) from 1994 and 1995. This survey contains information on family background, health behaviors, socio-demographic characteristics, friendships, and romantic relationships between American adolescents. They then questioned a selection of those surveyed about their social contacts. This was more than ten years after the original survey.

The authors of the new study say it is of great relevance, particularly in the United States, whether interracial contact in schools has an influence on interracial adult relationships. Interracial marriage and romantic partnerships are still rare in the United States, where currently fewer than eight percent of married blacks intermarry with whites. Scientists refer to the fact that people tend to choose partners who display certain characteristics that are similar to them as assortative matching. Prof. Steinhardt explains that the phenomenon of assortative matching is economically relevant because it affects the labor market, income inequality, and transgenerational income mobility.

"The findings of this study increase our understanding of how early interracial contact can change attitudes about the importance of these aspects of dating and partner selection," says Prof. Steinhardt. This indicates that programs designed to increase racial diversity in schools can reduce prejudice and promote social integration.


Luca Paolo Merlino, Max Friedrich Steinhardt, Liam Wren-Lewis: More than Just Friends’ School Peers and Adult Interracial Relationships, Journal of Labor Economics. DOI:

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