Here’s a quick question for our white readers: Have you discussed the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of black teenager Michael Brown with a non-white friend?
Odds are, you haven’t, and a 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute explains why. Three-quarters of white Americans don’t have a single non-white friend. (Friend being defined as someone with whom they have discussed “important matters” in the last six months.) Crunch the numbers another way, and you find that the average white American, out of 100 friends, has just one black friend, one Latino friend, one Asian friend, and one mixed race friend. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but the ramifications are sobering. Black Americans report more problems in their communities, according to a 2012 survey, and without empathy borne of friendship white Americans are blind to the lack of jobs and low-quality schools that blacks say they experience.
“If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles,” Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO, wrote in the Atlantic.
In contrast, the average black American, out of 100 friends, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, and three mixed race friends.
Some imbalance is to be expected, given that blacks only comprise 12.6% of the U.S. population. But social segregation, intentional or not, compounds that minority status, and arguably leads to polarized reactions to events like the Ferguson shooting. A Pew Research Center poll released last week revealed “wide racial differences” in reactions to Brown’s death, with blacks more likely to believe the incident raises racial issues, that local police “went too far,” and that the investigations being conducted are not to be trusted.
White perceptions may be shifting, however. With the death of Trayvon Martin–a Florida jury found shooter George Zimmerman not guilty–60% of whites said “race received more attention in that case than it deserved.” In the case of Brown, 47% of whites agreed with that statement.
Moreover, there’s at least one bright spot in the trend data: diverse friends may be scarce, but romantic love between couples of different races is on the rise. More than 5 million opposite-sex marriages now involve husbands and wives of different races or ethnicities, a 28% increase from the 2000 to the 2010 U.S. Census. According to NPR, that means that one in 10 married Americans said “I do” to someone of another race. Researchers are still studying the implications, but one study by Mark Ellis and colleagues at the University of Washington found that mixed-race marriages have reduced overall levels of neighborhood segregation.