A few years ago I did some data analysis on the uses of social networking sites by different racial groups. I found something very interesting. African Americans were more likely to do activities on social networking sites that connected them to new people. In that study, I used the literature on social capital to suggest that black people online were trying to tap into new streams of information for jobs and opportunities.
Bridging and Bonding
Past research had shown that black people tend to have very dense networks of friends and family, usually more dense than other ethnoracial groups. African-Americans are often enmeshed in a web of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends who they have known and expect to interact with all their life. In the parlance of social capital studies, they have on average a large number of “strong ties”. The resources that are available through networks – information, money, even a shoulder to lean on – is called “bonding capital”. It is a wonderful thing, this bonding capital. (As a side note, I often wonder if American society could take a lesson from how blacks build and maintain these fruitful networks…but that is for another time).
However, black people tend to have comparatively less connections with people outside of these intimate social networks. As a group, African Americans have fewer “weak” ties based on professional contacts, or with people in different lifestyle groups. This has tremendous consequences, as it is often in weak ties where one finds out new information not already available in one’s web of strong ties. In other words, your family and close friends will always be there for you, but it is the guy in the corner office who can provide unique information about a new position opening up or what the human resources person is looking for on resumes. Unfortunately for non-whites, most coworkers tend to be white, and those connections are rarely made.
Race matters in structuring networks and the type of capital a person has. People tend to make connections, however casual and passing, with people who are of the same racial group. Conversely, they avoid contact with people who are constructed as the racial “other”. In a lecture given at Brown University, Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues whites treat each other as “fictive kin” in professional settings. Of course, black people will do the same. The difference however is that the most important job leads, information, and other types of “hook-ups” are found within white networks. In this way, racial inequality is reproduced without racism. This happens even in a context where whites are liberal and progressive on racial matters (indeed, Bonilla-Silva’s comments were directed at academics and his experiences as chair of the sociology program at Duke, where many decisions about department policy where made in white networks before any formal meeting took place).
Whites Saving Places in Line
More research on this phenomenon comes from Nancy DiTomaso. DiTomaso, a professor at Rutgers University, explores the reproduction of racial inequality through white social networks in her book entitled The American Non-Dilemna. She argues that whites are more likely to form strong relationships with other whites, and therefore when plum opportunities arise, are more likely to share these opportunities with their (white) friends. Moreover, the help that whites get over a lifetime is cumulative: the white CEO got his initial internship through white networks, his early career miscues were not damaging because his white friends liked him enough to overlook them, and he was promoted because of a combination of merit AND friendship. The intent is not racist, but the effect is. In her words, whites see affirmative action as blacks jumping the line, but they do not recognize that they save a place in the line for their (white) friends.
I like the language of DiTomaso’s argument. It explains the contradictory experiences of white and non-white in professional settings.
Whites – both liberal and conservative – generally oppose affirmative action because it (a) removes opportunities that would have been available within their networks, (b) it goes against the American values of individual merit, and (c) they argue that affirmative action too often puts under-qualified minorities in positions simply because of their race. There is an almost visceral reaction to efforts by institutions to target non-white hires and a concomitant desire to think lesser of a non-white employee who is seen to be the benefit of racial preferences. From the point of view of most whites, racial preferences are simply unfair.
At the same time, non-whites can clearly see that plum opportunities and resources tend to be consolidated within white networks. They assume that because of these networks, whites often gain advantages over non-whites. Like whites who see affirmative action hires as under-qualified, they have seen in their own lives whites getting jobs and opportunities that they know they are equally or more qualified for (imagine two assembly line workers, one white and one black – the white worker somehow ends up getting the management position). They have seen their white peers being placed into positions to succeed and their flaws and foibles overlooked. They know that whites – as DiTomaso says “save a place in line” for their friends. The saying that the average black person need to work twice as hard as the average white person to reach the same place may be a cliche, but there is hard empirical evidence, coming from numerous studies including DiTomaso’s, to back this claim up. Non-whites understand that there is affirmative action for whites in labor markets.
The Banality of it All
The rub in all of this is that there are no moral indictments to levy, no punishments to mete out. The reproduction of racial inequality is simply a manifestation of everyday human behavior. Who wouldn’t help their friends? Isn’t giving information, using one’s influence, and providing opportunities one of the cornerstones of friendship? I certainly wouldn’t keep a friend who chose not to scratch my back from time to time.
But just because there is no directed discrimination here does not mean that we as a society should simply accept it. The use of affirmative action is one way that government can work to equalize the playing field. Another is through acknowledgment of and education about this phenomenon.
Finally, the people who are most affected by it can be their own change agents. And so my research showed that African-Americans were conducting “bridging” activities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter – attempting to reach out to people from different social networks and overcome the advantages given to whites by white affirmative action. This behavior by African-Americans is very laudable and very American – an attempt to achieve despite birth or circumstance.