An article on The Atlantic yesterday by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) CEO Robert P. Jones uses survey data to suggest that, given the racially homogeneous social networks of white Americans, they may find it hard to understand the events in Ferguson, MO. Hmm. Sounds like terrible bullshit.
Not the data, of course—the data speaks for itself. But the idea that white people can’t or won’t connect with the situation in Ferguson because they don’t personally know very many people of color is as sadly predictable as it is disappointing. According to PRRI data, the average white American’s social network is 93 percent white, which makes a whole lot of awful sense. “In fact,” Jones writes, “fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” That means three-quarters of the 78 percent–white United States (or 58.5 percent of the country, by my math) knows no one who is of a different race. At this rate, even the cop-out self-defense of “I have a black friend!” eludes the majority of white America.
By contrast, PRRI found that black Americans’ social networks are 65 percent homogeneous on average, while Hispanic Americans’ social networks are only 46 percent homogeneous. Whatever it may mean for Ferguson that white people are so cloistered in white social groups that they apparently cannot sympathize in any regard with what’s going on, it does not bode well for the future. For as connected as everything and everyone is these days, how have any of us remained so isolated?
Improbably, social networks create verticals more than they create webs, and just as each of us tunes into specific news sources and specific public figures, it’s entirely conceivable that certain news stories might fly beyond our radar. If Facebook were good for anything, instead of experimenting on what makes us “sad” it might devote an algorithm or two to broadening our social information horizons. Or, you know, maybe white people could try that IRL?
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.