Cross-Racial Friendships Linked to Age, Gender, Education and Income

I read with great interest the results of the recent Reuters Poll that suggested that about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans have friends that cross racial lines. After many years of studying racial identity development and its interface with interpersonal relationships and group interactions, I became convinced that race relations in the U.S. would only improve if there were more friendships that cross racial lines. So, to test this theory, I set out to examine the nature and patterns of friendships, particularly those that crossed racial lines.

Beginning in 1999 and completing the data collection in 2003, I distributed a Friendship Survey across the U.S. and conducted focus groups in four major cities: Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco. The results were incorporated in Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations through Friendships published by Pilgrim Press in 2004 and revised and updated in 2009.

The results from the 2003 data indicated that the majority of Americans are racially encapsulated not only in where we live, but in how we socialize. It further suggested that most individuals only experience racial diversity in their work or school settings. As a result, similar to the Reuters Poll, the majority of Americans do not have friends that cross racial lines.

I also conducted a leisure activity survey and found that across racial lines we enjoy the same kind of leisure activities -- movies, reading, dining out, live theater, concerts, museums, parks, zoos, sports/games, jazz clubs, comedy clubs, horse racing,music (listening to it or playing an instrument), roller skating, water sports, Internet surfing, shopping, biking, traveling, golfing, sewing/crafts -- you name it, we have enough in common that we like to do. However, we engage in these activities in a segregated manner. Even the majority of our faith communities -- churches, mosques, synagogues -- are racially segregated in their membership and ministry.

Ten years after conducting this research, we are in the process of conducting the same survey and will be conducting more focus groups and informant interviews. We began fielding the survey in June and will continue to collect data until September 30th. The
survey takes only about five minutes to complete.

Preliminary results of over 800 respondents suggest that having friends of different races are highly correlated with gender, age, educational level and income. Women tend to have more friends that cross racial lines; ages 18 to 45 have more cross racial friends; those with masters degree and above, and those who make six figures or above report having more than eight friends that cross racial lines. Although friends that cross racial lines share the same educational level and income, they are less likely to share the same political affiliation or faith community.

The survey does not intentionally define friendship; rather it asks about shared experiences as an indicator of level and intensity of the relationship. Preliminary results suggest that shared experience with friends that cross racial lines is primarily characterized as socializing in each other homes (dinner, parties, birthday celebrations). However, vacationing together, late night/early morning calls for support, borrowing money, and witnessing a family argument are activities that are shared to a much lesser degree.

These findings suggests that our friendships that cross racial lines lack the bench strength to withstand the intensity of a deep and honest conversation such as those provoked by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. A question in the Friendship Survey asks respondents to describe an incident that proved to be stressful or upsetting that occurred with their friend of a different race. References to the Trayvon Martin case are trending in the 2013 survey, similar to how the OJ Simpson and Rodney King cases were themes in the 2003 survey.

Crossing racial lines in friendships takes time to build understanding. It requires patience to learn how to trust; it is often exhausting when we try to communicate effectively; and it is often painful when there are racial clashes. Yet, all of the time, energy, and personal expense spent with having friends that cross racial lines is so worth the benefits: reduced racial isolation in communities; the creation of a better and informed citizenry; expansion of the concept of citizenship to a global level; improvement of team performance in organizations; and more innovation. I remain convinced that these cross racial friendships, where the risks are taken to go deeper, will result in benefits for all of us.