Clarence Page: We separate into information tribes
Nonwhite Americans are much more likely than white Americans to have a friend of a different race, a new poll finds. As a black American, I find that to be sad but understandable. After all, when you are in the minority, you are easier to avoid, whether people want to avoid you or not.
The poll released by Reuters/Ipsos recently found that about 40 percent of white Americans say they only have white friends. Only 25 percent of nonwhite Americans said they only have friends of their own race.
That makes an unfortunate amount of sense. Despite our tremendous intergroup progress since the “Mad Men” era, we Americans still live significantly segregated lives, especially outside of the classroom and the workplace.
We usually think of “cultural deprivation” as an affliction of the poor, alienated and disenfranchised. But even the well-heeled and well-connected are more deprived of valuable insights about their fellow humans than we often realize.
Even in our advanced media age, the best way to get to know other groups is through personal relationships. We don’t need scientific studies to tell us that, although many do.
A 2008 study at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, found that pairing up white and Latino students who had been prone to racial-ethnic biases reduced not only their prejudices but their classroom stress, too. Studying is easier, I suppose, when you don’t constantly feel like looking over your shoulder.
The poll comes at a poignantly significant time, between the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy and the 50th anniversary on Aug. 28 of Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Remembering Dr. King reminds us of how far we have come in overcoming our racial differences. The fallout from the Zimmerman trial reminds us of how far we have to go.
Like the O.J. Simpson trial and other racial eruptions in recent decades, everybody brings their own attitudes and experiences to their view of hot button issues like race, crime and justice.
Once again, we see black Americans criticized for attacking racial profiling when we “should be” attacking black criminals, who overwhelmingly victimize other blacks more than any other racial group. As a black American, I ask, why not both? We live everyday with perceived threats from both black criminals and racial profiling.
Unfortunately, our conservative critics, in particular, only see our protests against profiling and don’t hear about our many marches, candle lightings, neighborhood watch programs and other protests against black-on-black violence. I understand. You’re not going to hear about another group’s true attitudes and struggles if you don’t know many people in the other group.
For this persistent divide in our racial attitudes, I blame a basic human tendency that social scientists call “homophily,” a technical term for our tribal impulses as in the old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
We tend to live, work and socialize with people whose backgrounds, interests and politics are similar to our own. This delights computer-assisted politicians and marketing wizards who can read a lot in our ZIP codes about how we’re going to shop or vote.
But it also can result in social “information silos,” systems that stunt thinking, vision and imagination by closing off valuable interaction with outsiders.
Today’s media explosion, contrary to our traditional role of bringing people together through communication, ironically serves to separate us more definitively into tribes. It is a bit too easy for us to gravitate to talk radio, cable TV, social networks and other information and opinion sources that reinforce our social and political views for better or worse, uninterrupted by a contrary thought.
An important ray of hope in the Reuters poll: Americans under age 30 were a lot more likely than older Americans to have friendly relations with someone of a different race.
The poll also finds big differences between regions and groups in this diverse nation. Among Hispanic Americans, for example, only a tenth said they didn’t have friends of a different race.
The proverbial American melting pot is still working in its slow but determined path toward Dr. King’s dream. Sometimes the rest of us need to get out of our tribes and help it along.
Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as firstname.lastname@example.org. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.