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Column: Social segregation

"All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend."

That's the memorable punch line of a Chris Rock bit from 2009 on interracial friendships. And according to some recent number-crunching by Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, there's a good deal of truth to that statement. The average black person's friend network is 8 percent white, but the average white person's network is only 1 percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have 10 times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.

There are a number of factors driving these numbers. Simple population counts are one of them: There are more white people than black people in the United States, so it makes sense that the average American is going to have more white friends than black friends.

Another factor is our tendency to seek out and associate with people who are similar to us in any number of ways — religiously, politically, economically and yes, racially too. The polite term for this phenomenon is "sorting," and it affects everything from political polarization to income inequality to the racial differences in friend networks seen above.

As PRRI's Jones writes in the Atlantic, Americans' segregated social circles have influenced responses to the events in Ferguson, Mo., over the past few weeks. (Read his piece — "Self-segregation: Why it's so hard for whites to understand Ferguson" — at Polls show deep divides between blacks and whites on everything from the role of race in Ferguson to the appropriateness of responses by protesters and police.

These numbers offer insight into why so many whites are baffled over protesters' responses to the shooting of Michael Brown. The history between many black communities and the police forces that serve them is long, complicated, often violent and characterized by an extreme imbalance of power. But as Jones notes, most whites are not "socially positioned" to understand this history, simply because they know few people who have experienced it.

In fact, PRRI's data show that a full 75 percent of whites have "entirely white social networks without any minority presence." The same holds true for slightly less than two-thirds of black Americans. The implication of these findings is that when we talk about race in our personal lives, we are by and large discussing it with people who look like us.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

© 2014 Washington Post

Calculating the breakdowns by race of friend networks

As part of their American Values Survey, PRRI researchers asked respondents to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters. They then asked a battery of demographic questions about these people — their relationships to their respondents, as well as their gender, religion, and germane for these purposes, their race. They used these numbers to derive average racial breakdowns of the friend networks of the average black, white and Hispanic survey respondent. See the complete original survey at

Column: Social segregation 08/26/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 5:25pm]
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