Race/Ethnicity and Friendship

Race and ethnicity are important factors in friendship formation. People tend to form friendships with others who live near them and who occupy similar social positions, belong to the same organizations, and are like themselves in terms of attitudes, values, and behaviors. Race and ethnicity are often cues of these similarities; therefore, race and ethnicity structure friendship formation (McPherson et al. 2001). People are likely to associate with others of their own race if the racial composition of the populations and distribution of members of a race throughout substructures of the population  provide  opportunities  for  same race friendships to form.

Researchers have found evidence that race and ethnicity influence various types of relationships, ranging from marriage to workplace relationships to friendships to mere discussion networks (McPherson et al. 2001). These studies show that interracial relationships occur less often than would be expected given the available opportunities for them. Structures such as families, workplaces, organizations, and neighborhoods bring people together as kin, co workers, members, and neighbors, but they do not ensure the formation of strong ties or close friendships (Feld & Carter 1998).

A recent Brown University study finds that interracial friendships are no more common in the United States than they are in post apartheid South Africa, probably because elements of apartheid are found in America. Massey and Denton (1993) coined the term ”American apartheid” to describe the unique residential hypersegregation of blacks across large metropolitan areas in the United States. Scholars have referred to residential segregation as the ”structural linchpin” of race relations in America (Bobo & Zubrinsky 1996). People of different races generally do not live close to each other, so interracial interaction and interracial friendships are not as common as they might be otherwise.

Lack of proximity contributes to social distance between people of different races. Zipf (1949) asserts that people are willing to expend little effort toward establishing ties outside their local area. People with low interracial contact in their local area are more likely to be attracted to those they perceive to be similar to themselves, probably through racial cues. Growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods can teach blacks and other minorities to forgo racial cues and choose friends based on similarity to themselves on more attitudinal dimensions (Korgen 2002: 73). Interracial contact within neighbor hoods is often a result of racial preferences. Blacks prefer to live in mixed neighborhoods, but few whites accept living in a neighborhood that is more than 20 percent black (Massey & Denton 1993). In fact, whites generally do not want to live near blacks, even when controlling for socioeconomic status (Steinhorn 2000).

Those who form interracial friendships may face social sanctions from same race friends. Blacks with a white close friend overwhelmingly report disapproval from black friends, family, or acquaintances. Whites with a black close friend report generally positive reaction to their inter racial friendships, but these reactions seem to imply that black-white friendships are a novelty and provide false evidence of harmony between blacks and whites in America (Korgen 2002).

Black-white racial tension in America has led to the current research emphasis on black-white friendships, but interracial tension between white, black, Latino, and Asian people in society is an emerging area of scholarship to complement research on black-white conflict. Classic research by Bogardus (1959) and consequent follow up studies continue to suggest that the social distance between whites and blacks is greater than the distance between whites and people of other ethnicities. When given an option, whites prefer to associate with Latinos and Asians instead of with blacks (Bobo & Zubrinsky 1996). A Latino or Asian person with a third grade education is more likely to live among whites than a black person with a doctoral degree. With higher intermarriage rates with whites compared to blacks, native born Latinos and Asians are assimilating while blacks have not been able to integrate fully (Steinhorn 2000). Blacks often face social pressures to end interracial friendships with white peers, but black peers typically accept friendships with Asians and Latinos (Korgen 2002).

Few social arenas promote social interactions between people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, so a great deal of research on multi ethnic interracial friendship takes place in educational contexts, specifically in colleges and universities. Fifty years of desegregation in American education since Brown v. Board of Education has provided researchers with social settings in which to study how diverse people interact and form friendships. Multicultural universities emphasize the importance of diversity in bringing people together to encourage positive interracial contact. Administrators believe that positive contact in cooperative environments leads to positive attitudes and positive interracial relationships. Critics of increasing diversity claim that it leads to conflict, while its proponents claim that the university plays an invaluable role in promoting interracial friend ships among students who bring their own individual friendship experiences and expectations to the college setting.

Research shows that interracial interaction in an egalitarian setting such as a university can both promote and discourage interracial friend ship. Administrators seek to increase racial and ethnic diversity in hopes that positive inter actions among young people of similar age, intelligence, and academic background in residential, social, classroom, extracurricular, and co curricular settings will lead to interracial friendship. Critics of affirmative action and other policies that seek to increase diversity often emphasize self segregation among college students as evidence of negative consequences of multicultural universities. Minority students may feel marginalized in their campus surroundings and seek out friendships with other students of their own race (Tyson 2002). The term ”self segregation” implies that minority students segregate themselves from their white classmates despite sufficient opportunities for contact and friendship formation with white students around campus. Critics of affirmative action and other programs that promote diversity often do not recognize that white students also fail to take advantage of opportunities to form friendships with minority students.

Current and past research suggests that people will form friendships with others with similar behaviors and characteristics. Future research should continue to explore interaction among people of different races and ethnicities in situations in which friendship development is possible. This research should examine the similarities among these people across multiple dimensions such as proximity, psychological characteristics, background, and experiences and how these similarities contribute to friendship formation despite racial and ethnic differences.


  1. Bobo, L. & Zubrinsky, C. (1996) Attitudes on Residential Integration: Perceived Status Differences,Mere In-Group Preference, or Racial Prejudice? Social Forces 74(3): 883-900.
  2. Bogardus, E. S. (1959) Social Distance. Antioch, Yellow Springs, OH.
  3. Feld, S. L. & Carter, W. C. (1998) When Desegre­gation Reduces Interracial Contact: A Class Size Paradox for Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 103(5): 1165 86.
  4. Granovetter, M. (1973) The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360 80.
  5. Korgen, K. O. (2002) Crossing the Racial Divide: Close Friendships Between Black and White Americans. Praeger, Westport, CT.
  6. McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001) Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 415 44.
  7. Massey, D. S. & Denton, N. A. (1993) American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  8. Steinhorn, L. (2000) Martin Luther King’s Half­Won Battle. Ace Magazine.
  9. Tyson, W. (2002) Understanding the Margins: Marginality and Social Segregation in Predominantly White Universities. In: Moore, R. (Ed.), The Quality and Quantity of Contact: African Americans and Whites on College Campuses, 307 22.
  10. Zipf, G. K. (1949) Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort. Addison-Wesley, Menlo Park, CA.

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