According to a recent Washington Post article, we white people don’t have as many black friends as we say we do.
First, it’s important to note that the article cites a study that doesn’t quantify how many “friends” anyone has, but rather studies the “people with whom they had ‘discussed important matters’ in the past six months.” I’ve written a separate entry about how the article used the wrong word.
But I still wanted to ask myself — and have my readers ask themselves — (1) whether it’s true. And if it is true, then (2) why?
Using the article’s terminology of “friends” — and the common meaning of the term — I can say I have no black friends. This is because I really only have one friend who’s not a member of my family. (Yes, Richard, I’m counting you.) I’m not a big “friend” person, and never really have been. I think my maximum friend circle, during either high school or college, probably never got wider than five or six people.
But if I use the study’s phrase, I’ve “discussed important matters” (in the past six months) with about four people: my brother (white), my friend Richard (white), my wife (black), and my daughter (black*).
(* I’d rather avoid the contentious subject of whether someone is “black” when they clearly have a white parent — such as Barack Obama or my own children. Most U.S. government forms don’t have a sliding scale for ethnicity; you’re either white, or black, or something else, but can never be in-between any of them. Yes, I think this is racist on the government’s part, but currently my children qualify as “black” on these forms.)
So I would be an outlier in the PRRI study, since half my network is black and half is white.
My guess is that my readers, based on what I know about them, would fall within the “normal” range of the study. You might know a black person, but they’re likely not in your inner circle. This was true of me as well — at least for most of my life — until I met my wife.
So, on to the second question: Why is this?
The article proposes that we’re “sorting”:
“There are a number of factors driving these numbers. Simple population counts are one of them: There are more white people than black people in the United States, so it makes sense that the average American is going to have more white friends than black friends.
Another factor is our tendency to seek out and associate with people who are similar to us in any number of ways — religiously, politically, economically and, yes, racially, too.”
One thing the article did not mention (and neither did the study), but what I think is the major reason for the findings, is how people are spread around the country, ethnically speaking.
I’m sure there are statistics about this too, but I’ll rely on anecdotes.
My first friends were white and Asian, because I lived near an Air Force base in Tokyo, Japan. My next friends came in Choctaw, Oklahoma. If there was a black person on my street, I wasn’t aware of it. I played with white neighbor boys.
In my early school years (grades 1-6), there were only two black people, a boy and a girl. Only the girl shows up in any of my class photos. My problem with her was her gender, not her skin color. I didn’t hang out with girls back then. I remember talking to the boy, who is not in any of my class photos, in the cafeteria — usually about sports. But he was not in any of my classes, did not ride my bus, did not go to my church, and didn’t live in my neighborhood. Kind of makes it hard to be “friends”.
Then we moved to South Texas. In my junior high (middle school) years, there was never a black person. In my high school of about a thousand people, there was never once a black student (or teacher, for that matter) during my entire four years there. If memory serves me correctly, there were no black people at my church either — except for one regularly scheduled evangelist from Miami, Florida.
There were plenty of Hispanic people (we called them “Mexican” back then, though I realize many of them had been in Texas longer than the rest of us), and several of them were my friends. Of my two prom dates, one was of Russian descent and the other was Latina. Of my two best friends during high school years, the first had a Czech surname and the other was a few generations removed from Mexico.
At my college: just a couple of black students out of a thousand. At my places of employment: either no black people or only in other departments.
This all changed for me in mid-1996, when I began working at a supermarket in Jacksonville, Ark., and moved to a tiny duplex in North Little Rock. Immediately, and for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a fairly even mix.
My point is this: a lot of white people don’t have black friends, cohorts, confidants, etc., because of where they live. This does not make them racist. It doesn’t mean they’re “sorting” their friends by race. It doesn’t mean they’re avoiding black people.
(My wife, on the other hand, grew up in New York City, where it seems almost impossible not to interact with someone vastly different than oneself. Her friends, many of them first-generation Americans, have always included a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.)
Demographic sorting of various ethnic groups has a lot to do with it. Some of this might indicate systemic racism or other social issues, but I wouldn’t bank too heavily on assessing guilt based on the average number of [insert ethnic group] friends people have.