Work most likely place to form cross-racial friendships, poll finds

CHARLOTTE -- When people in Charlotte make friends across racial lines, it usually happens at work rather than in churches, neighborhoods or social groups.

Experts say that finding from the latest Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolinas Poll is easily explained.

"People have to work together," said Tyrone Forman, a race relations researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Neighborhoods and churches tend to be fairly segregated contexts."

More than 90 percent of the 600 Mecklenburg residents questioned for the poll said they knew someone of another race whom they considered a personal friend.

Asked where they met those friends, nearly half said the workplace. Other answers included neighborhoods (15 percent), "somewhere else" (16 percent), friends (14 percent) and church (7 percent).

The poll results weren't surprising to Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries. She said corporations seem to do better with diversity issues than houses of worship.

Still, she questioned whether poll respondents were wrongly classifying casual, cross-racial workplace acquaintances as friendships.

"There's a lot of people of different races who work together who know each other well on a work basis," she said, "but they don't socialize together or know each other well outside of work."

She pointed to a 2000 Harvard study of 40 cities that showed Charlotte came in next to last in interracial trust.

Mecklenburg Ministries has been trying, through its Friday Friends program, to spark cross-racial friendships.

About 400 people have agreed to go to lunch at least one Friday a month for six months with someone of a different race. Often, Hanlin said, the lunch buddies are co-workers who discover they didn't know as much about each other as they thought.

Interviews with several poll respondents seemed to confirm Hanlin's suspicion.

Several respondents, when questioned about their workplace friendships, described warm, collegial bonds that seldom stretched beyond work.

Scott Powell, 37, said he'd struck up numerous cross-racial friendships working in purchasing for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

Powell, who is white, said when he switched positions, he became friends with the black woman who replaced him. "We go to lunch together every once in a while," he said.

They don't interact much beyond work, though.

The Charlotte Observer/WCNC News 2007 Carolinas Poll was done Aug. 15-19 by Braun Research of Princeton, N.J., which interviewed 549 registered Mecklenburg voters by telephone. The sampling error for those responses is plus or minus 4.2percentage points.