Some Of My Best Friends Aren't Black Or Brown Or Asian... : Code Switch A new poll showed that many Americans still don't have any friends of another race.

Some Of My Best Friends Aren't Black Or Brown Or Asian...

Hey! We're just a bunch of ethnically diverse friends of varying ages who like blues and neutrals hanging out and acting natural! iStockphoto hide caption

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Hey! We're just a bunch of ethnically diverse friends of varying ages who like blues and neutrals hanging out and acting natural!


Let's coin a new stereotype right here: Latinos are mad friendly.

Ninety percent of Latinos said that they are friends with people of a different race, according to new poll from Reuters and Ipsos, making them much more likely than the rest of America to reach across racial lines to make friends.

'Nine out of 10 Latinos can say, some of my best friends are not-Latino,' my Code Switch teammate Hansi Lo Wang reported recently for NPR's Newscast unit.

Only about a quarter of the people of color surveyed said they didn't have any close personal friends from a different racial group.

But the number of white people who only had white friends was much higher, at 40 percent. But why did whites have more same-race friendships than any other group?

Part of it is just the math: there are just way more white folks.

And geography certainly plays a role: if you don't live near people who aren't in your racial group, you can't make friends with them. That might explain why Latinos, who are especially clustered in the diverse West, have more friends of different races than everyone else.

But the whole story is a probably a lot more complicated than just geography and numbers.

The Reuters/Ipsos survey found that people from the South were less likely to have more than five acquaintances of another race. But nine of the 10 blackest states, by proportion, are southern. And an influx of Latino children means that more than half of the South's school population are kids of color. So there's at least theoretical proximity between lots of black folks, lots of Latinos, and lots of white folks in the South. But, still, people there reported social networks that were more monochromatic than those in the rest of the country.

"A lot of white people are like, 'I wish I knew more black people, but I just don't! Where are they?'" joked Tanner Colby, the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. (He said he was surprised the 40 percent number for whites wasn't higher.)

Colby, who is white, decided to write his book when he noticed that he and his liberal Brooklyn friends (also white) voted eagerly for Barack Obama. But then Colby began to realize that while they knew black people, none of them had any actual black friends. (Indeed, one of the questions we got the most after sharing the Reuters study on Twitter was just what people meant by "friends.")

He took a look at his high school friends' Facebook pages to see how many black friends they were connected to. "Out of 10- or 11,000 first-degree friends, there were about 165 black people," he said — a dismal one percent.

So Colby decided to research why places that had tried to integrate them had done so poorly at it — places like his high school, near Birmingham, Ala. (Colby said he decided to focus on black people since Asian Americans and Latinos were immigrant populations with different historical experiences with integration.) His school, Vestavia Hills, was the jewel of a town whose population was swelled by the mad dash of whites fleeing from the city to avoid court orders to integrate their schools. When integration finally came to Vestavia Hills, it was via busing, which he argues treated the issue of integration as a largely mathematical one.

"Integration still didn't happen very much, and it only happened when individual black people decided to cross the color line themselves — which was a very difficult and tortured experience," he said. People were in the same schools, but didn't really have much meaningful interaction with each other. "We've pursued all these cosmetic solutions, like school busing, to deal with what was a fundamentally a housing problem in a lot of ways."

For a long time, the South actually outpaced the rest of the country on integration of its schools for awhile, but again, that was mostly on paper. And the Department of Education writes that the region is becoming more segregated, as more kids of color attend schools that are mostly brown and white students go to schools that remain overwhelmingly white.

Colby said that white people often told him that they were reluctant to reach across racial lines because they felt uncomfortable; they didn't want to put their foot in their mouth or say the wrong thing. For black people, Colby said, the "reticence was about a sense that white people were kind of useless" — they'd be frustrated by white people's seeming lack of curiosity or foundational knowledge about black people and their experiences. "The word I kept hearing from everyone, regardless of race, was 'comfort,'" he said.

As with so many conversations about race, there seems to be a big generational component in attitudes and inclinations. Only one in 10 people under the age of 30 reported having no friends, coworkers or family members who belonged to a different racial group. The number for the country as a whole was twice as large.

Colby said that most people's social circles become entrenched as they get older; if you don't have friends of a different race by the time you're settling down, you're not likely to have many opportunities to make any.

Colby said that many people who talked to him about his book expressed guilt about a lack of diversity in their friend groups, but just as many people said they were making sincere, if imperfect efforts to make sure their kids' lives were different. He told the story of a housing development in Kansas City which sprung up in the 1970s that was started expressly to be racially integrated. But, again, the community didn't turn out that way in practice.

Eventually, though, the members of the community with children came to what Colby called a negotiated truce.

"They basically said we'll coexist in this space so our children can grow up in a different world," he said.