Last week, the Washington Post reported the results of a study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that show that the average White person in America hardly has any non-White friends. In a 100-person scenario, the average White person has 91 times as many White friends than Black friends; the average Black person has 10 times as many Black friends than White friends. In addition, the results show that a whopping three quarters of White people don’t have any non-White friends at all.
Check out the Washington Post’s infographic here:
How do we interpret these results? Are most White people lying when they say they have a Black friend? Do White people find it difficult to relate to people of color and vice versa? These are some of the questions that are floating around the internet since The Washington Post reported on PRRI’s study. Unpacking these questions is important, but doing so won’t drive the conversations that will help us better understand and address race in this country.
By looking at how our communities are structured, however, we can make much more sense of why the seeming majority of White people have so few meaningful connections with people of color and Black people in particular. We also can begin to ask the right questions about how racial segregation shapes communities across race and influences attitudes on race. Viewing our friendship patterns as a symptom of our segregated communities leads us away from defensiveness (“You’re racist” “I’m not racist”) and moves us toward solutions that will help bridge racial divides and expand opportunity not just for communities of color, but for everyone.
Here’s a quick reminder of how segregation created unequal neighborhoods:
Our country is becoming more racially diverse, but we aren’t living in the same neighborhoods.
We are still living with the legacy of federally subsidized racial discrimination in housing. Between 1930 and 1950, three out of five homes purchased in the U.S. were financed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and only 2% of those loans were made to non-White buyers. Essentially, this created predominantly White, suburban communities and people of color-concentrated inner cities.
Today, many folks make decisions on where to live based on proximity to good schools, transit options, good food, etc. Since these factors are largely decided by policy, this is a structural decision as much as it is a personal decision. But, if race weren’t a factor in where we live, consider that the American Sociological Association (ASA) found that between 1977 and 2005, almost 73% of White people moved to predominantly White neighborhoods while only 5% of Black people moved to predominantly White neighborhoods.
Something is at work here. Some of this can be explained by bias, conscious or unconscious. But the deeper reason is that most people of color usually don’t have the economic mobility or financing opportunities to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods, which, due to historic and current-day policy, are predominantly White neighborhoods. This helps explain why so few Black people move to those neighborhoods. Our lending and financing practices also helps explain the lack of mobility or people of color. In 2008, at the height of the housing boom, Blacks and Latinos making over $200,000 a year were more likely, on average, to receive a subprime loan, than Whites making less than $30,000.
Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, racial integration efforts in classrooms have rolled back. That should give all of us pause.
According to a recent report by the Civil Rights Project, Blacks are now seeing more school segregation than they have in decades. More than half of Latino students are now attending schools that are majority Latino. And though Whites make up just over half of the nation’s enrollment, the typical White student attends a school where the majority of their peers are White.
As we know, separate doesn’t mean equal. Across the country, schools with majority-Black or Latino often are often under-resourced. For example, one third of majority-people of color schools did not offer chemistry or algebra. These schools also are more likely to have higher concentrations of first-year teachers than majority-White students. On top of that, their peers are more likely to be low-income.
These conditions didn’t just happen on their own. For example, in 1991, a Supreme Court decision made it easier for school districts and courts to dismantle desegregation plans, despite research showing the social and economic benefits of racially integrated schools.
The U.S. has made several strides towards integration. But, we still have a long way to go. Research shows that the American job force still has a pattern of racial segregation.
In our 2011 report, we at CSI showed that more Black and Latino workers are cast as second-class workers: over-represented in low-skill, low- wage occupations with limited chances to move up the ladder of opportunity. Of the seven occupations with the highest salaries, six are over-represented by Whites by five to twelve percentage points. The only higher-paying occupation with a large population of color workforce is computer software engineer. Over a third of that workforce is Asian-(36%). Three of the six lowest paid occupations are disproportionately represented by people of color, with home health aides being the lowest paid occupation that is overly represented by people of color by 11 to 25 percentage points.
Where do we go from here?
Though we as individuals may have different experiences with race, by and large, our nation is still racially segregated. Although we may be unaware, this racial isolation reinforces our implicit or unconscious biases. And as we’ve seen, these biases can be a matter of life and death for Black people. Results from the Implicit Association Test (IAT) show that the vast majority of participants react to a Black face as “bad” and a White face as “good”.
These negative associations have been drilled into all of us, regardless of our conscious intentions. And for those of us with little to no contact with Black people except for what we see in the media, these associations are even more pronounced and reinforced. Research also shows that our implicit biases are malleable, and with more meaningful, consistent, non-competitive contact across race, we can shift our associations.
Actively diversifying one’s friendship pool, like some folks are recommending, is a good first step for decreasing our biases. But, the practice in “getting more Black friends or friends of color” could easily slip into tokenizing. Considering that we’re less likely to live, learn, work, or be consistently together in the same places, this may not be the greatest point of leverage.
Instead, we should work toward structural shifts. We can do this by fighting for racially equitable policies that promote opportunity, inclusion, and integration. A growing body of social science research shows that creating multi-racial, mixed-income neighborhoods has a huge effect on implicit biases. Here are some of the opportunities we could move toward: we need to work toward affirmatively furthering fair housing. We need to fight segregated entrances in mixed-income housing. We need to encourage measures that promote integration in our schools, whether its through better and different zoning, busing, affirmative action, or more transformative measures. We need to counter hiring discrimination and build ladders of opportunity for all workers.
This work requires multi-year organizing, but it will have a profound impact on all of our lives and the lives of our children. And, through this, we also may shift what close friendships look like across the country. As Dr. King stated, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”