A collective gasp of surprise went up this week after the Public Religion Research Institute released new survey data that found that 75 percent of white Americans have “entirely white social networks.” Yet our popular culture, the 800-percent rise in hate groups, the woefully homogenous workplaces at companies such as Google, an ever-widening wealth gap, and neighborhoods still segregated along racial lines should make it obvious that the postracial promised land heralded when President Obama was first elected does not exist.
Most white Americans would never admit to having segregated social circles or harboring racial biases against minorities. However, the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey methodology got around white folks’ reluctance to admit the lack of diversity in their social networks.
For the survey, the institute’s researchers asked respondents to “name up to seven people with whom they had ‘discussed important matters’ in the past six months.” After the respondents named those individuals, the researchers asked them to “provide five attributes about each of those individuals, including gender, race and ethnicity, religious affiliation, 2012 vote preference, and relationship to the respondent.”
Analysis of the responses found that “the percentage of Americans with social networks that are entirely comprised of people from the same racial or ethnic background” also varied depending on a respondent’s race or ethnicity. On top of the 75 percent of white Americans reporting “that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white, with no minority presence,” the researchers also found that only 15 percent of white folks reported having a racially diverse social network. In comparison, 65 percent of black Americans reported having an all-black social network, and 23 percent said that their network is diverse.
In terms of the overall homogeneity of friends, the survey found that for “white Americans, 91 percent of people comprising their social networks are also white, while five percent are identified as some other race.” In comparison, “among black Americans, 83 percent of people in their social networks are composed of people who are also black, while eight percent are white and six percent are some other race.”
Though some would predict that white conservatives would be less likely to have a diverse group of friends given that their political views on social issues often alienate minority communities, PPRI’s survey found little difference between white Democrats and white Republicans. “There is little variation among white American subgroups in terms of the racial homogeneity of their social networks,” the institute reports. “White Republicans (81 percent) are no different from white Democrats (78 percent) in that they both have social networks that are entirely composed of whites.”
“The data does not surprise me at all,” says David J. Leonard, an associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race at Washington State University. “Implicit biases and stereotypes shape friendships, and if we look at media, if we look at popular culture, if we look at education, we see a persistence in the circulation of stereotypes that recycle prejudices. Those assumptions about difference shape friendships and invariably impact how white people interact with African Americans,” he says.
Socializing in homogenous networks and communities affects white people’s ability to be empathetic to the struggles their contemporaries of another color face. It also increases the likelihood that white Americans will view their minority counterparts through a stereotypical lens.
“If you see someone as a ‘stereotype’ or cannot see beyond the stereotype, it surely impairs your ability to be a friend, to see someone as a friend,” says Leonard. “Friendship is based in humanity, in human interaction, and racism denies the humanity of African Americans over and over again.”
That inability to see beyond a stereotype was evident after the recent shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A recent Pew poll found that 80 percent of African Americans thought the shooting in Ferguson raised important issues about race in America, while that number was just 37 percent for white Americans.
The contrast in thought was even more stark on Fox News Channel, where pundits debatedwhether Brown should even be referred to as an “unarmed teen” given his height and weight, despite that he was a teenager and was not armed when he was killed.
For African Americans, discussing Brown’s size as a weapon spoke to the long history of labeling all black men as potential predators. As Damon Young of the blog Very Smart Brothas put it, “It’s all about that belief an uncomfortably large segment of the population holds, that all Michael Browns—all black men and women, including those reading this right now—are potential Negro Supercriminals who need to be stopped.”
Though many white Americans would never admit to harboring racial biases against minorities, choosing instead to lean on having at least one nonwhite friend or cloaking themselves in so-called liberal views, PRRI’s study proves that for the majority of whites, this just isn’t true.
Segregated social interactions are one reason minorities have a difficult time reaching economic parity with whites.
“Whites help other whites, especially when unemployment is high,” Rutgers Business School vice dean Nancy DiTomaso wrote in The New York Times. “Although people from every background may try to help their own, whites are more likely to hold the sorts of jobs that are protected from market competition, that pay a living wage and that have the potential to teach skills and allow for job training and advancement.”
To begin bridging the gap that may lead to more cross-cultural friendships down the line, Leonard argues the route is simple: People have to talk to each other, and white folks have to own their privilege.
“Whites rarely have the opportunity to talk about race, to be held accountable for privilege, and to have important conversations,” he says. “Lacking the language to talk about race and to engage cross-racially will impact white people’s ability and willingness to develop these friendships.”