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    • Kelvin Wade

    • August 31, 2014 in Columnists

    Do you know any black people?

    A study by the Public Religion Research Institute released this week found that most white Americans don’t have any black friends. It found that if a white person had 100 friends, 91 would be white and only one would be black. (One would be Hispanic, one Asian and the rest ambiguous.) Blacks generally have black friends but they have 8 times as many white friends as whites do blacks. The study also found that 75 percent of white Americans have no minorities in their social circle at all.

    The last sentence is tough to swallow. That seems high to me. A poll by Reuters last year put that number at 40 percent. So if we split the difference, it would still add up to the majority of white Americans having no nonwhite friends. That’s not surprising.

    Legal segregation may been outlawed but we still self-segregate. Last year, Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls,” a show revolving around four white women, defended the lack of minorities on the show by saying she doesn’t know any black people so how could she write about them? She’s being honest.

    Part of the reason there are so few interracial friends is because we tend to befriend people in our same social circle. And much of housing is still segregated. When public schools were integrated and bussing helped mix the races even more, many whites pulled their kids out of schools. And as more blacks were economically able to move into what were then white neighborhoods, whites moved out in what’s come to be known as “white flight.” Studies have shown that when a neighborhood becomes more than 8 percent black, whites start to move out.

    Many people work in companies where the employees are all one color. That also prevents blacks and whites from having the opportunity to get to know each other and develop friendships.

    A quote, often attributed to Martin Luther King, is that “the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 am Sunday morning.” There are black churches and white churches. Now no one is barred from attending a church of their choosing but once again, people self-segregate. Or at least it’s mostly due to self-segregation. I had a white female penpal back in 1985 that lived in a small town in Alabama. I was happy to learn that she and I attended the same church, the Church of Christ. But I was shocked when she told me, “But a black person could never come to our church.” What?

    So once again, an opportunity is lost to build friendships. If we live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, worship in different churches, watch different television shows, listen to different music and have starkly different histories and experiences, it’s no wonder actual friendships are few.

    If you’re a white person living in an all white town and everyone around you believes the same things as you do, and you tune into media (news, radio, websites) that just reinforce what you already believe, then how can you be sure you have an accurate view of blacks, Hispanics, Asians or anyone unlike you? This goes for everyone, of course, but whites are more likely not to have friends outside of their race.

    Are you a racist if you don’t have friends of other races? Of course not. Sometimes there are no opportunities, like I’ve discussed above. And what the study doesn’t show is that plenty of white folks have black acquaintances and coworkers. Genuine friendships should be organic so white folks shouldn’t rush out to find a token black friend. But maybe we should be open to those acquaintances blossoming into something deeper.

    So when an O.J. Simpson trial happens or Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, it’s not surprising polls show a racial divide. For one, we’re a society that’s ignorant of our history in a way that most nations aren’t. Secondly, as the study shows, there aren’t enough interracial conversations. We spend too much time talking to people who look like us and think like us, and we never have our comfortable beliefs challenged.

    How can more interracial friendships change society? In the past few years, we’ve seen a sea change in how gays are perceived and we’ve seen public opinion move towards accepting same sex marriage. I don’t think that’s from people studying the issue and weighing pros and cons. I think it’s due to the fact that more and more people are coming out and people are finding out that family members and friends are gay. Folks are able to see that gay people are no different than anyone else. Stereotypes get challenged. Dire predictions of doom and gloom fizzle.

    The same happens when different races befriend each other. Stereotypes and prejudiced views have a hard time surviving if you’re friends with someone who is nothing like your preconceived notions.

    My brothers and I were fortunate to be raised in a navy family. With the military being integrated far before the rest of the country, we grew up with friends of different races. We had white friends, black, Hispanic, Filipino and others over the house or we’d be over at theirs. I know that I have been and am currently a lot of white folks’ only black friend. One is better than nothing. I hope I help shatter some myths and challenge prejudices. And they don’t just learn from me, I learn from them.

    My three closest friends are white women. Two of the three are a different generation than I am. We can talk about anything. That’s how it should be.

    It’s possible to be a nonjudgmental, accepting, non-racist person and not have any black friends, just like it’s possible to accept gays and not know any personally. And that’s great. But it’s positive interaction and genuine friendships that bridge the gap between races, genders and sexual orientation. The more we befriend, connect, argue, discuss, listen and listen (it’s so important, I had to say it twice!) the more we will understand.

    As the song goes, things get a little easier once you understand.


    • Love this Kelvin. I am fortunate to have friends of every color and I think living in Los Angeles, helps that along. Also facebook has introduced me to people all over the world who are very different than I am in many ways which helps the divide. I dated a black man for 14 years and he had so few black friends which surprised me. I mean only one or two at any given time. He was surprised by my diverse friendships. I think you pointed out all the reasons why this happens more frequently than we imagine. I consider you my friend and yet we have never met. But we did try once when I was up north and it just didn’t work out. One day I hope to meet.

    • I think for some whites, it’s not the lack of desire for friends of different races, it’s the lack of opportunity. Where I live, the population is about half white and half Hispanic. There are a handful of black families here, and I know several of them, adore them all… When you live in an isolated spot, it’s kind of hard to just drive to another town and find some black people and say, “Hey, will you be my friend” without getting some weird looks. They will probably back away.
      I think Facebook at least allows more interracial communication, and I have learned a LOT from my black Facebook friends about a whole variety of things. Language is the common ground, however. If they don’t speak English, it’s difficult to have a fluid conversation.
      I liked your comment about the writer of “Girls.” I think it’s hard for some white people (I am among them) to even enter into a conversation about black-white relations, out of dread fear of stupidly saying something insensitive or offensive. Yet, – that fear prohibits understanding.
      Think of toddlers, asking all sorts of embarrassing questions – but that’s how they learn. In some ways, I think a portion of the white population are toddlers when it comes to understanding the black population… but we are too intimidated to ask questions, so we toddle along in stupidity.
      This is one of the reasons I posted that video and tagged you on Facebook, Kelvin. I thought I saw some value in the message… but something was “off” about it. And you clarified it for me. You are someone I trust enough to venture into asking a stupid or uncomfortable question. I think that’s a huge factor in having a good relationship. 🙂

    • I think it’s not only knowing or finding black friends as Debra pointed out. But in a community that is half white, half Hispanic how many know each other and are friends? Same thing applies whether it is Asian, Black, Hispanics, etc. Most people don’t even know their neighbors so how will they ever branch out.

    • This is a tough one to comment on but here goes. Well, you about covered everything so I’ll just move on out. Excellent piece of writing.

      • Kelvin

      • August 31, 2014 at 5:16 pm
      • Reply

      When I saw this study I knew I wanted to write about it. But I also thought it was going to make people (especially white readers) uncomfortable. There is reluctance for dialogue especially among whites who are afraid of saying the wrong thing or afraid of appearing bigoted. I get that because I know what it’s like when I’ve been taken to task by readers for using “illegals” in a column on immigration. And I was chastised for using the phrase “stage mentally ill” in a column about mental illness. That fear is enough to make one just avoid those subjects.

      There is a lot of self-segregation that goes on even in such a diverse country as this one. My sister in law Patty grew up outside of Philly in a black neighborhood and had no white friends. It was a far different upbringing than mine. I feel fortunate that I grew up in navy housing with people of different races. We didn’t go to a “black church.” In fact, when my family moved to Oakland from Norfolk, VA in 1975, it was a real culture shock for me. Going to a black church was a trip. It was so much more.,,,festive. Participatory. I loved it. We didn’t live on a base. We lived off of Telegraph. Can’t recall the street but it was much less diverse. Then we moved to Novato to a base and once again it was very integrated.

      I get what you’re saying about toddlers, Debra. That’s why I tell my friends to ask anything. It’s really hard to offend me. Years ago One of my besties, Joyce and I watched “Menace ll Society” with me on DVD and she kept pausing it for me to interpret the slang. She can ask anything she wants and I can of her. I have a politically incorrect relationship with my friends and family. We had Sunday dinner today (although it was early this week because Lauryn has to work) like every Sunday and at that table there’s me (obviously black), Cathi (white ), Cathi’s daughter Sheryl (white/Japanese) and the two grandkids (white/a black/Japanese.) it’s a pretty politically incorrect dinner.

      Kids can be straight to the point in a way that adults are afraid to be. Years ago I was dating a white woman from a small town in Colorado that had no blacks at the time. When I went there you’d think the people were looking at a unicorn. When I first arrived I net my girlfriend’s 2 year old niece. Obviously this lil girl had never seen a black person. She walked up to me outside and looked at my hands. She touched my hand and turned it over. She placed her hand next to mine and looked at them. No one said a word. Then she said, “Okay” and took my hand and led me into the house! That was awesome!

      Okay, I’ve rambled on enough.

      • Kelvin, you are just the best. 🙂 When you create a safe environment to ask questions, even stupid ones or unintentionally offensive ones, without repercussion, it lets people relax and be honest. And that little girls at the end of this… that is so awesome. 🙂

      • Maya North

      • August 31, 2014 at 11:30 pm
      • Reply

      I grew up in Missouri and was surrounded by black people, but we might’ve as well been walking around with personal, private walls surrounding us for all we were able to get to know each other. I have cherished coworkers of all sorts of races and religions and I would be happy to socialize outside of work — with one friend, I have done so. I am more fortunate on Facebook because I have a whole, delightful rainbow of friends there. I don’t care what color people are — I am more wary about culture, because that’s about how people treat you. If you come from a culture where women are oppressed, I’m going to be watching you to see if you try it around me. And I confess, being from an academic family, I am most comfortable with people who are a bit more intellectual, but then again, not always. Basically, it’s like I wrote in my column about Ferguson — I don’t care much what color you are as long as you grin back at me in the grocery store when we pass in the aisles — except for how it affects you in this world. If people harm you because of your skin color, I’m going to be really angry about it on your behalf and because it diminishes MY world when they do that. However, I am not color-blind. I see your color and I like it. A phrase I heard quoted in a magazine article from eons ago regarding living as a black person in this country still resonates. The young woman said “Most people are nice, but sometimes they aren’t, and I wonder if it’s because of my skin.” I repeated that phrase to myself over and over and the more I said it, the more bizarre it sounded. Because of her SKIN? Really? How about teeth? Or toenails? Or tennis shoes? Or the shape of her pupils? Or armpit hair? The idea that beings of the same species would have ANY feelings toward one another based on SKIN is so bizarre when looked at objectively that I am flummoxed by it. We’re all gradations of brown — from pale, pinkish beige to very nearly black with purple highlights. We are all one people — mitochondrial DNA proves it. Honestly, I would really like to know when we’re just fecking going to get OVER it. Perhaps an evil — but defeatable — space alien would convince us that we need to grow UP and grow past this stupidity once and for all…

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