White Americans are far less likely to have friends of another race than non-white Americans, according to a new poll from Reuters/Ipsos. About 40 percent of white Americans have only white friends, while about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded only by people of their own race.
The poll comes on the heels of the verdict in the death of unarmed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, a case in which shooter George Zimmerman, whose parents are Hispanic and white, said he believed Martin was a "suspicious" person on drugs, and Martin described Zimmerman as a "creepy-ass cracker."
After the not guilty verdict for Zimmerman, President Barack Obama called on Americans in a lengthy speech on race to ask themselves if they were "judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character."
Past research has shown the benefits of cross-race friendships. A 2008 study from the University of California, Berkeley, for example, found that making friends with someone of another race could reduce anxiety in educational settings, while a 2003 study from McGill University in Quebec suggested that contact and friendship with people of another race were the "keystones to the reduction of prejudice,"
But the same McGill study also showed that cross-race friendships declined as people got older, and the Reuters study similarly shows that Americans over 30 were far less likely to partner with someone of a different race than younger Americans were.
In Obama's July speech on the Zimmerman verdict, he said that he had hope younger people understood race better than their parents. "Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race," he said. "They're better than we are – they're better than we were – on these issues."
But Roy S. Malpass, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has conducted research on the cross-race relationships, said attitudes have not fundamentally changed over time because of persistent segregation in the U.S.
"The question is: do you live in an integrated neighborhood? Do you work in an integrated workplace? Given the segregation in this country, it's no bloody wonder," he said.
And America is not alone. Back in 2004, Britain's Commission for Racial Equality found that more than 9 out of 10 white Britons had no or very few ethnic minority friends. At the time, the commission's chair Trevor Phillips told the Guardian that the study revealed why "for no apparent reason [white Britons] can become hostile and racist" toward minorities. The survey also found that, as in America, younger white Britons had more friends of another race than those of older generations.