Self-Segregation on the Quad

Last week, you might’ve found yourself settling down at a cozy Friendsgiving. If so, take a quick panoramic around the table in your memory. Did the rest of the faces seated at it look an awful lot like yours?

I recently got an email from a reader who tells me she came to the U.S. to attend college in the northeast, having grown up in various countries around Western Europe:

When I got to college in America, I was struck by how segregated the female friendships were. Not even just racially, but socioeconomically. The middle-class White women were all friends with other middle-class White women. The upper-class/affluent Black women were all friends with other affluent Black women. The poor/new immigrant women were all friends with one another (Hispanic with Hispanic, Asian with Asian).

OCCASIONALLY there was some leakage. The affluent White women in the societies were friends with one or two non-White women, but only because they were rich and part of the society. When racial issues cropped up, the Black women would sometimes allow Asian and Hispanic women into their circles. Otherwise, it was the strangest thing I saw.

Her words leapt out to me mostly because of the specific setting she mentions—college campuses. In an ideal world, these would be the spaces where we get to meet people from backgrounds different than our own—ideologically, racially, socioeconomically, what have you.

I say “ideal” here, likely reflecting my own parents’ progressive priorities at that particular juncture of my life—though Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, is hardly a paragon of diversity, in enrollment or, as I recall, the tacit huddles around our New Commons cafeteria à la Mean Girls:

That said, I have little doubt there are parents out there, or teens themselves, who purposely or unconsciously seek out a monochrome campus. But even if a student or her parents aim for a diverse college environment, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a diverse campus experience. In a follow-up email, our reader pointed to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent photo essay of Connecticut College first-year Tavaris Sanders, which captured how “people surround themselves by folks who resemble them in every way,” she wrote.

Last year, you might’ve seen a flash of stories reporting the findings of this study from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) on American values. The study, which surveyed more than 2,300 adults, found that 75 percent of white Americans report having “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” The Washington Post detailed this part of the report:

In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race.

At the time, PRRI’s own Robert P. Jones wrote for us on how this self-segregation forms or inflames our beliefs about the rest of society—a point our reader hit in her email:

I loved college, but seeing how segregated female friendships were (male friendships seemed slightly more porous but just barely) prepared me for some of the dysfunctions I see in American adult society today. Everything from dating (or the lack of [interracial] dating between certain groups), to hiring, to representations in the media. If you only associate yourself with people who look like you, there are a lot of people who won't be part of the system. And a lot of people who you won't feel inclined to care about.

The Atlantic has also covered segregation across school districts, from elementary through high school—see Alana Semuels’s work and Nikole Hannah-Jones’s deep reporting for more on that.

More recently, Andrew McGill took a data-driven approach to explore the shifting racial makeup in college enrollment (or barely shifting, if we’re talking about elite research institutions).

We’re still not very close to having college student bodies that reflect the broader population. Even if we got there, there’s no guarantee the students’ experiences wouldn’t be somewhat homogenous.

Is self-segregation actually a bad thing? Or is it just an outgrowth of natural human tribalism? My boss Matt Thompson showed me this wonderful simulation that breaks everything down into simple shapes and graphics. It’s called “Parable of the Polygons,” based on the work of game theorist Thomas Schelling. “If you’re all triangles, you’re missing out on some amazing squares in your life,” concluded the simulation creators. “That’s unfair to everyone.”

What efforts have you seen that successfully brought students of different backgrounds together? Or, what programs on your campus have been best at bridging a variety of perspectives? Shoot me a note—hello@theatlantic.com—to guide the conversation.