White People Are So Colorblind They Can Only See White People

white people social network

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.

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  1. If a white person doesn’t see that people of color are treated differently because of their race, s/he is not paying attention. I know that in my own life: the only two friends I’ve had that have been stopped by the police for (1) sitting on their own stoop or (2) opening their house’s door with a key have been black men in their twenties. A few summers ago, on two successive nights, coming back from free outdoor concerts at Wingate Field in East Flatbush and Brower Park in Crown Heights, I saw several black male teenagers stopped by the police for what seemed no apparent reason (I saw them before the cops did and they just seemed to be hanging out, or in one case, waiting for a bus). Living in North Florida, twice in department stores I’ve had sales people come over to a counter and ask me, “Can I help you?” when there was a black person also standing there who’d been there before me. Teaching community college students in NYC, I’ve heard the stop-and-frisk stories again and again from black and Hispanic young men.

    My friend stopped by the cops as he went into his garden apartment in Maryland was yelled at: “Drop
    the knife!” “What knife?” he said, and the cops tackled him to the ground. Apparently in the hands of a tall young black man, a set of keys looks like a knife. I’ve never heard of this happening to any of my white family members or friends. And when the officer uses the key to go into the apartment, which my friend kept claiming was his, and sees a photo of my friend with his grandparents, the cop says suspiciously, “Why is there a photo of you in this apartment?” Duh. At least he let my friend open the drawer to show him the lease and compare the name on it with his driver’s license. And at least this town’s police department had the sense to send around a black captain an hour later to apologize. But again, something like that has never happened to any white person I know.

    Pay attention to others’ experiences, people.