While the average Black American has eight White friends, and Latin people in the USA have an average of 19 White friends, the typical White American only has one friend each from Black, Latin, Asian, mixed race, and other racial minorities.
Drawing on a nationally representative dateset (the 2013 American Values Survey, N=2,317 people), research by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that finds 91% of White people’s friends are White. On average, the rest of their friends include only 1 Black person, 1 Latin person, 1 Asian person, 1 mixed race person, 1 other race person, and the rest are unsure. In contrast, 83% of Black people’s friends are Black, and 64% of Latin people’s friends are Latin, and both Black and Latin people have more racial variability amongst the rest of their friendship networks.
Looking deeper at close friendships where people discuss important matters, 75% of White people have “entirely White social networks without any minority presence.”
Researcher Robert Jones and colleagues argue the lack of diversity amongst White social networks has a negative impact on civil society. White people lack a personal connection to Black history and culture because they don’t engage adequate information on these issues. As a result, they do not fully recognise the marginalisation that Black people experience. As such, Jones argues, White people are not “socially positioned” to understand the significance of events at Ferguson and other racial justice and civil disputes.
These data are backed up by a recent Pew Research study which finds that only 37% of White Americans think Michael Brown’s death and subsequent events in Ferguson raise important issues about race, in contrast to 80% of Black people who do see the connection to racism.
In sociology, we use the concept of homophily to explain the structure of social networks. This word literally means “love of the same.” In sociology, this concept measures how little people mix outside their groups, and the consequences of this lack of intermingling. On the outside, friendship groups seem diverse because we tend to think of relationships in reference to individuals. For example: I have a friend who is outgoing and likes horror films and manga comics; I have another friend who’s quiet and likes 70s rock music; another friend likes going to the art gallery and reading Margaret Atwood books; and so on. The fact is, that most people tend to know people similar to themselves where it really counts: along racial and socio-economic lines.
Friendships are not just a source of interpersonal support. Friendships connect us to a world of opportunities: access to new sources of information, a connection to jobs, an inroad to help us navigate social institutions (such as education), an entry point to political power, and other valuable social and economic assets (in sociology, we call this social capital).
Research shows that lack of diversity in White people’s friendship circles has a societal impact, in that it stagnates social change. White people hold the balance of social power, whether they like to admit to it or not. People of colour find ways to connect with White people, but the reverse is not true of the majority of White people. Friendships don’t just “naturally” happen; they aren’t even the strict outcome of personalities or personal preferences. Social relationships are one clear way in which power, resources and the status quo are maintained.
Study: Daniel Cox, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Robert P. Jones (2014) Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks. Washington: Public Religion Research Institute.
Graphic: Washington Post: http://buff.ly/XUw3oz
Pew study: http://buff.ly/XUw3oA
A classic study: http://buff.ly/XUw5wS
Broader impact on social organisation: http://buff.ly/XUw5wT
Race and impact on elite structures in society: http://buff.ly/XUw5wU