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The unbearable whiteness of social networks

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

American whites see the events in Ferguson, Missouri very differently than American blacks — for instance, a Pew poll found that 80 percent of blacks say Michael Brown's shooting "raises questions questions about race," while only 37 percent of whites say the same.

One depressing explanation, proposed by Robert P. Jones in the Atlantic, is that most white people simply don't talk to blacks about important political issues, and so don't understand why police violence against black men is so racially charged.

Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which publishes a comprehensive survey of American political behavior called the American Values Survey. Jones bases his argument in data on "social networks" from the 2013 survey. In the AVS, the term doesn't mean Facebook or Twitter. Instead, Jones' survey asked "respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey."

The findings are pretty staggering. As Jones explains, the vast majority of white people simply don't talk to black Americans about "important matters" — including, presumably, racial discrepancies in the US:

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).

Here's what the average social network of a white American looks like, charted:

white social networks PRRI/2013 American Values Survey

PRRI/2013 American Values Survey

Jones concludes that this has a massive effect on white attitudes about race. "For me, a white man," he writes, "hearing accounts of how black parents teach their sons to deal with police is difficult to grasp as reality." It's worth reading the whole thing at the Atlantic.