Two years after George Floyd’s death in police custody sparked a racial reckoning nationwide, most white Americans continue to look only to other white Americans for the most personal forms of social support, according to a new survey from Public Religion Research Institute.
“It’s notable that even with all of the attention to racial divisions and barriers ... we still see that white people have extremely homogenized networks. It’s gotten a little bit better but not much in the last eight or nine years,” said Natalie Jackson, the institute’s director of research.
When asked to list up to seven people, including family members, with whom they “discussed important matters” in the past six months, two-thirds of white Americans named only whites. The survey showed that similar patterns were present across racial groups.
“Among white Americans, 90% of people comprising their social networks are also white, similar to 2013 (91%). Among Black Americans, 78% of people in their social networks are also Black, a notable decrease from 83% in 2013. Among Hispanic Americans, 63% of the people who comprise their core social networks are also Hispanic, while about one in four (26%) are white,” Public Religion Research Institute reported.
Americans don’t just gravitate toward people who look like they do, according to the new research. They also seem to seek out close connections with people who share their political views and faith.
“Nearly six in ten people in Democrats’ and Republicans’ social networks are also Democrats (59%) or Republicans (58%),” the institute found. Meanwhile, the social networks of Protestants, Catholics and non-Christians are dominated by Protestants (65%), Catholics (59%) and non-Christians (58%), respectively.
“If you wonder why we have groups in this country who just don’t understand each other, this is it. There’s no mixing,” Jackson said.
Despite the challenges that can arise from friendship network homogeneity, most Americans are satisfied with the makeup of their social networks.
Only 14% of U.S. adults are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the diversity of their close friends, the survey found. Eighty percent are at least somewhat satisfied with their number of close friends.
The struggle to find friends
Even if Americans were dissatisfied with the size or makeup of their friend groups, it would be hard for them to make adjustments. Research — and personal experience — shows that it’s difficult to make friends these days, according to Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
“You have to put a lot of time and energy into forging these connections,” he said.
In the past, organizations like houses of worship, veterans groups and country clubs provided a strong and stable infrastructure for friendship formation. But as these institutions have faded to the background of American life, people have lost opportunities to form social connections, Cox noted.
“There’s been a significant decline in people having friends at all and people having a best friend. Men seem to be particularly affected by this decline,” he said, citing research released last year by the Survey Center on American Life.
Cox added, “When you lose that kind of structure previously provided by formal organizations, it becomes a lot harder to build a community all on your own.”
Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for interactions between people who are thousands of miles apart, they rarely enable the kinds of conversations that pave the way toward true friendship, Cox said.
“For most folks, (social media) is not a way to forge really lasting connections,” he said.
Jackson agreed that social media “friends” aren’t often friends in the traditional sense, noting that most Americans prefer to connect with their closest friends offline.
“We asked people how they communicate with these friends and the majority — 57% — said they primarily communicate in person,” she said.
Why study friendship?
Researchers who’ve studied friendship in recent months said they hope the topic gets more attention in the years ahead. Without regular surveys on social networks, it’s very difficult to understand how society is changing, Cox said.
“We’ve had these ideas that we’re lonelier or more isolated but it’s been really difficult to quantify in a meaningful way just what the loss has been” due to gaps in the research, he said.
Surveys on friendship are also valuable because they point to reasons why individual Americans may hold various opinions, Jackson said.
“A lot of the time in survey research we focus on what individuals think. The piece that we often don’t or aren’t able to gauge is how individuals are impacted by those around them,” she said.
Although Public Religion Research Institute’s new survey does not establish causality, meaning it doesn’t prove that the makeup of someone’s friend group causes them to hold certain beliefs, it did show that having diverse social networks is associated with embracing diversity in American life.
For example, researchers found that “among white evangelical Protestants — the religious group least likely to express a preference for a religiously diverse country — those whose friendship networks include only other evangelical Protestants (16%) are less likely than those whose friendship networks include at least one non-evangelical Protestant person (23%) to say that they prefer to live in a religiously diverse country.”
“The impact of just one person of a different background is profound, significantly increasing support for the ideals of a multiracial, multi-religious democracy,” said Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, in a press release about the new survey.