If You're White & American, Your Friends Probably Are Too — And It's Limiting You

Friendships, more often than not, are built around similarities — similar interests, similar values, and according to Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), similar racial backgrounds. According to Jones' survey, the average American is almost exclusively friends with people of the same race or ethnicity. PRRI came to this conclusion by conducting a survey of 2,317 adults, aged 18 and over. Their "American Values Survey" began by asking respondents questions about their political values, their views on recent policy like the Affordable Care Act, and their religious beliefs.

But at question 25, things really began to get interesting — PRRI first asked participants, "Looking back over the last six months - who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" Respondents were then asked to further describe their closest friends, identifying their gender, religious beliefs, political leanings, and most importantly, their race.

After aggregating the data, PRRI and the Washington Post created a hypothetical situation in which the average American can claim 100 friends. Based on the survey's results, out of these 100 friends, the average non-Hispanic white American would have an astounding 91 white friends.

These last nine coveted spots would include one black friend, one Asian friend, one Latino friend, one mixed race friend, one friend of an "other" race, and three friends of unknown racial backgrounds. Tokenizing, ladies and gentlemen, appears alive and well.

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But, on the other hand, PRRI and the Washington Post also created a similar situation for black respondents. And while the hypothetical friend breakdown for African Americans is a little more diverse than that of their white American counterparts, it still leaves much to be desired.

The average black American with 100 friends, according to PRRI, would have 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three friends of mixed race, one friend of an "other" race, and four friends of an unknown race.

Even more concerning is the finding that an shocking 75 percent of white Americans do not have a single black friend. Scratch that, 75 percent of white Americans do not have a single friend who is not white — no Latinos, no Asians, no nothing.

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Jones wrote in The Atlantic,"Fully three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence." A similar problem pervades amongst African American and Latino circles as well — PRRI determined that 65 percent of blacks had only black friends, and 46 percent of Hispanic Americans had only Latino friends.

What This Data Means

As stunning as the raw data may be, its implications are even more concerning. While Mike Brown's death has prompted national discussions about race and its role in the day to day lives of many Americans, these PRRI numbers suggest that these discussions are happening amongst extremely homogenous groups.

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Conversations may be taking place, but who are they taking place between? When push comes to shove, how much can you learn from people who look and sound the same way you do? From people who grew up in families just like yours? From people whose experiences, by and large, are similar by way of the color of their skin?

Not having a diverse friend circle doesn't make you a racist, but it does limit your levels of awareness and understanding of issues like Brown's death.

Race Affects How Americans See Ferguson

This is the larger concern that PRRI's survey raises. Numerous studies have shown that there exists a distinct racial divide in reactions to Brown's death. A Pew Research poll conducted last week revealed that while 44 percent of people surveyed said that the Michael Brown case raised important issues about race, compared to 40 percent of people who said race was getting more attention than it deserved, an overwhelming proportion of the 44 percent were African American.

In fact, 80 percent of black people surveyed said that race played a role in both the shooting and its attention, whereas only 37 percent of whites said the same thing. In contrast, only 18 percent of African Americans said that race was being overplayed, whereas 47 percent of whites agreed.

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Based on PRRI's survey, it seems that these opinions will only deepen as friend groups grow (and remain) absurdly segregated. Even in cities like New York, which boasts one of the highest levels of ethnic diversity in the country, this "diversity" only means that residents of different races happen to call the same city home.

New York Demographics

A closer examination of how New York City is populated shows that races are distinctly separated by neighborhood. Even though census data shows that New York is 45 percent white, 27 percent black, 27 percent Latino, and 10 percent Asian, each racial group is tightly clustered in specific geographic areas.

In the above color map of the boroughs of New York City, red represents white individuals, blue represents African Americans, orange represents Latinos, and green represents Asians. East Harlem in Manhattan is almost entirely Hispanic, Harlem is nearly unilaterally African American, and Chinatown is, well, what the name implies. So while several races may coexist in the same island, their levels of interaction, even based on their living quarters, appears nearly nonexistent.

This is an enormous problem. By denying ourselves friendships with people from different races, we are simultaneously denying ourselves a valuable education. Diversity isn't just for show — it's meant for empathy, for understanding, and ultimately, for solidarity. While this isn't to say that each one of us should fill a specific quota in our friend circles, there is something to be said about friend circles that are surprisingly monochromatic.

We need to be talking about race with people of different races. Otherwise, how will we learn?

Images: Getty Images (4); Eric Fischer/Flickr