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.