In the months ahead, the Next America polls will measure the responses of whites and minorities to many dimensions of the economic, cultural, and political changes unleashed by the rapid demographic change under way.
In recent years, one characteristic of this change has been that diversity has not only deepened in the urban areas already accustomed to it but also diffused into new places. The imprint of these changes emerges from the respondents’ reports about their daily interactions with people of other races and ethnic backgrounds. African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites in the survey to report a substantial number of neighbors and friends from other races, but interracial friendship was common among all three groups.
In the poll, 45 percent of African-Americans said they had “a lot” of neighbors from other racial or ethnic groups, and another 20 percent said they had “some”; only 35 percent said they had “just a few” or none. For Hispanics, the combined share with either a lot (34 percent) or some (28 percent) neighbors of other races was similar. Perhaps not surprisingly, more African-Americans and Hispanics with at least some college experience reported a substantial number of interracial neighbors than did those without such college experience. Just over one-quarter of both African-Americans and Hispanics said they spent time with a lot of friends from other races; a roughly equal number reported some such friends. Minorities with and without college experience gave similar responses to this question.
Whites were less likely—but not vastly so—to report meaningful interaction across racial lines. Just over one-fourth of whites said they have many neighbors of other races; approximately an equal number said they had some. About half of whites said they had a lot (15 percent) or some (36 percent) friends of other races. Education didn’t meaningfully divide whites on these questions, but age did. Fully 60 percent of whites under 34 said they had at least some neighbors of other races; only about 40 percent of white seniors said so. Two-thirds of younger whites said they had at least some interracial friends; only about one-third of white seniors concurred.
Bridget Wentworth, a young white woman who works in a children’s store in San Francisco, was typical of several younger whites who said that having friends of other races “was just not a big deal.” She cited her education in public schools that were definitely diverse. “I think the reason [for my interracial friendships] is because I’m exposed to a lot more people of different ethnicities,” she added. “My parents grew up in the suburbs, and they just weren’t around people of different backgrounds as much as me.”
When asked to place their experience in a broader framework, majorities of all groups saw a trajectory toward greater intermingling. Among those who reported any interracial acquaintances, 70 percent of whites, 63 percent of African-Americans, and 56 percent of Hispanics said they had more friends of other races than their parents did.
But although the poll documents increasing interaction between Americans of different racial backgrounds, it offers a mixed verdict on whether understanding is also increasing. When asked about the direction of race relations, whites and Hispanics offered broadly similar answers that were more positive than negative: 36 percent of whites and 30 percent of Hispanics said that relations are getting better; 41 percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics said that they are staying about the same. Only about one-fifth of whites and one-fourth of Hispanics said that race relations are getting worse. African-Americans were more pessimistic, but again, not vastly so. About three in 10 said that race relations are deteriorating; about half said they are staying about the same, and just over one-fifth said they see improvement.
Almost half of Hispanics and blacks said that America will benefit when minorities become a majority of the population.
Donna Matthews, who moved to New York City from Jamaica in 1968, is among those who believe that trends are improving. When she joined a medical publishing firm around that time, she recalled, “I was the only minority among the good ol’ boys. And I did well because I did my homework to get past the stereotype…. If a young person has good exposure, and is well-read, then they can have a good conversation … and break down that wall.” Others see more-enduring barriers. “I think they just swept the prejudice under the rug during the civil-rights era,” said Daisy Robertson, an African-American furniture builder in Silver Creek, Miss., who is unemployed. “It’s still there.”
It’s telling that African-Americans and Hispanics with college experience were no more likely than those without it to see an improvement in race relations. That suggests that class does not inherently trump race, and that economic ascent can create different opportunities for racial strain.