People still self-segregate as much as they do in face-to-face interactions; most, that is, still reach out to members of their own racial background. The study results in a nutshell: Race still matters online.
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And – once they have replied to a suitor from a different race – people are then themselves more likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future.
Lewis’s study of romantic social networks considered only heterosexual interactions, for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings, and only those individuals, for the sake of simplicity, who self-identify with one and only one of the top five most populous of Ok Cupid’s racial categories: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian).
He analyzed only the first message sent and the first reply. Only data on the sender, receiver and timestamp of the message were available.
The tendency to initiate contact within one’s own race, the study observes, is strongest among Asians and Indians and weakest among whites.
And the biggest “reversals” are observed among groups that display the greatest tendency towards in-group bias, and also when a person is being contacted by someone from a different racial background for the first time.
Lewis unites his varied findings with an explanation he calls “pre-emptive discrimination.” “Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place.But if a person of another race expresses interest in them , their assumptions are falsified—and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future,” he said.The effect is short-lived, however: People go back to habitual patterns in about a week. “The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo, by the normal state of affairs,” Lewis said.“Racial bias in assortative mating is a robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with small steps in the right direction.We still have a long way to go.” Earlier work on racial bias in assortative mating (or the non-random pairings of people with similar traits) had trouble disentangling how much was due to prejudice and how much to geography or meeting opportunities.Lewis was able to control for these factors in his analysis, and this is one reason he is a champion of additional projects of the sort his paper describes.