Men and Interracial Friendships: Uncommon, But Certainly Not Impossible.

Upon his death in June 2011, much was made of the relationship between Bruce Springsteen and his late, great saxophone player, Clarence Clemons. Many media outlets from highbrow publications to run of the mill, to relatively obscure publications ran fawning stories highlighting the genuine, affectionate and loyal relationship that both men had with one another.

During the summer of 2015, various segments of the media engaged in deja vu as they affectionately touted the gripping story of three young American citizens — Alex Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler. While on vacation in Paris, these three heroic men sprung into action and dramatically and decisively took down heavily armed terrorist Ayoub El-Khazzani, successfully preventing an unimaginable terror plot. The brave and capable trio was awarded with the Legion d’honneur, the most prestigious award given by the nation of France. Each young man was honored with medals by then U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the White House and had a private meeting with former President Obama.

U.S. Airman Stone, National Guardsman Skarlatos and then college student Sadler were the recipients of hometown parades, talk show and radio interviews, and became the darlings of both national and international media across the political spectrum. Skarlatos gained further celebrity and became a contestant on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.

While the public became privy to many details of the lives and backgrounds of these young men, and fondly reminisced on the seemingly brother like relationship of Springsteen and Clemons, one notable factor that was not largely evaded was the fact that in both situations, these men were/are part of an interracial friendship. While this does not make them a novelty, it is in fact somewhat noteworthy. There are those who would argue that cross-racial friendships are not that unusual, particularly for the latter trio of men given the fact that these men are members of the millennial generation.

For the better part of a decade we had been led to believe that this group of young men and women are supposed to be the most racially and socially progressive group in American history though a number of studies over the past several years coupled and a plethora of recent incidents on a number of college campuses and other venues have amply refuted this largely held belief.

Despite such incidents, it is probably safe to say that, on average, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1998), are likely to be more open-minded and accepting of certain mores, customs ― for example, same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, open drug use ― that have been less well received by previous generations. That being said, being more tolerant does not necessarily translate into full support. Tolerance and acceptance are two different things!

The truth is that interracial friendships among men are neither novel nor non-existent. Additionally, outside of real life scenarios, we have seen many cases on the silver screen and in entertainment where White men and non-White men, particularly with Black men, have formed close bonds with one another.

From escape convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the 1958 Oscar-nominated movie The Defiant Ones to Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the 1960s NBC detective series I Spy (1965-‘68). To Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas in the flashy, flamboyant and racy mid 1980s television program Miami Vice (1985–1990). To Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the multi sequel Lethal Weapon series. To Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in the 1994 Oscar-nominated film Pulp Fiction. To Scott Bakula, Ray Romano and Andre Braugher in the woefully underrated and ridiculously unappreciated, fantastic TNT series Men of a Certain Age (2009-11), the entertainment industry does a great job of providing fictional versions of White/non-White pairings, particularly Black-White fellowship that is often at odds with reality.

To be sure, there are interracial relationships between White and non-White men in real life, especially among athletes and the most progressive men. The famous, in some cases, infamous Hollywood Rat Pack members — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were a notable, high-profile interracial group. Indeed, many men (including a number of their famous male co-horts in the entertainment industry,) admired and were in awe of them.

The aforementioned examples aside, the question is, outside of the jock/athletic realm, how commonplace and frequent are they? Yes, it is true, that many men have problems making friends with anyone, their male neighbor, co-worker(s), let alone a man of a different racial background.

Historically speaking, the fact is that relationships between White men and Black men have often been fragile and fraught with tension, paranoia and ample amounts of intense suspicion and mistrust. This is due to a number of historical, economic and psychological reasons.

Fear of supposed unrestrained sexual prowess (fear of the Black male penis) coupled with supposed “malevolent and wanton” Black male violence. Sexually rapacious behavior and brutally untoward dispositions toward Black women by segments of White men just a few of many factors that created a divide between men of both groups. Throughout most of the 20th century, lower-income males of both groups (particularly Irish, Polish and Italian White men) were often competing with Black men for low-wage jobs. Yes! It was about money and sex!

Other factors were at play as well. Even among more supposedly liberal White men this divide has been commonplace. To be sure there are non-White men who harbor racial prejudice and dangerously misguided views about others with different skin pigmentation and should be justly condemned and challenged for their attitudes.

Indeed, on the contrary, there are many men across racial lines who do not use racial slurs or harbor rabid hatred toward others who are physically and culturally different from themselves. Nonetheless, they are often either far too indifferent, disinterested or unwilling to make the next step of crossing the racial divide and befriending or learning more about their brothers of another color or culture.

These are the men (most often White self-identified liberal men) who like the idea of racial diversity (as well as cultural pluralism in general) in theory, from a safe, non-threatening distance. As the old saying goes, “talking the talk, as opposed to truly and sincerely walking the walk.”

Does not having any friends of other races automatically make you a bad or racist person? No. Does it make you a socially and culturally limited person? To a large degree, yes it does! For those men such as Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, myself and others who do have male friendships across the racial divide, we can safely say that these relationships have been very valuable and rewarding for a multitude of reasons and we are likely to be more socially, emotionally, psychologically and possibly, even physically healthier in a variety of ways due to this fact.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. Is a professor, author and public speaker. His forthcoming book, Keepin’It Real:Essays On Race in Contemporary America will be published the University of Chicago Press.

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Historian, public speaker, social-cultural critic. Professor of African American and Gender Studies, Post-WWII U.S. History, at East Tennessee State University.

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