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Study: Workplace and Community Engagement Key to Interracial Friendship

While the number of Americans reporting someone of another race among their “very close friends” has risen 6 percent over the last 20 years, interracial, close friendships are still rare in the lives of most Americans.

Professor Xavier de Souza Briggs, the lead researcher of a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on interracial friendships, says that people who are involved in community organizations and activities and who socialize with their co-workers are much more likely to have friends of another race than those who do not.

The study, completed in 2000, questioned some 30,000 people on their patterns of civic engagement. It reveals that regardless of race, people with higher incomes and more education were more likely to be civic “joiners,” people who get involved in community organizations and activities. High levels of income and education almost ensured that people’s social circles would include those of other racial backgrounds.

The communities covered by the survey range from small and relatively homogeneous cities, such as Lewiston, Maine, to big cities, such as Los Angeles, that are among the most ethnically diverse places in the world.

Some 79 percent of respondents in the 29-community sample report had at least one personal friend from some other racial group, and 21 percent reported having friends from all three groups. Still, one quarter of Whites reported no interracial friendships at all, and this measure of racial isolation ranges from a low of 8 percent in Los Angeles to a high 55 percent in Bismarck, N.D.

Asians and Hispanics reported varied interracial ties. These groups are more likely than either Blacks or Whites to report having personal friends of every other major racial ethnic group.

Still, according to a recently released poll by New America Media, largest national collaboration of ethnic news organizations, ethnic minorities tend to live in ethnically isolated communities. Seventy-three percent of Hispanic respondents in the NAM study reported that most of their friends were of the same race or ethnicity followed by 67 percent of Blacks and 58 percent of Asians. This report indicates that an overwhelming percentage of Blacks and Hispanics attend religious services and schools with members of their own race or ethnicity leaving little room for interracial interaction.

“Despite our romance with the idea of neighborhoods as being cohesive communities, Americans’ friendships and other personal ties have become less centered on their neighborhoods over the past few decades,” Souza says.

The gist of Souza’s study lies in the significance of social bridges across racial lines. These ties, he argues, provide essential ladders to economic opportunity, give people a broader perspective on public issues and expand their sense of self and community. Additionally, they help contain conflicts among different racial groups, promote wider access to information and influence and enhance the ability to work with others to get things done in diverse communities and organizations.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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