While politics is not yet post-racial - every criticism of the politics of a minority member of government is labeled racism - dating seems to be, according to UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis after looking at patterns of 126,134 US users of the dating site OkCupid.com

While the sample is not scientific, the analysis results find that race still matters online, people self-segregate there as much as they do in face-to-face interactions, but people are more likely to reciprocate a cross-race overture than previous equally unscientific papers that have made race-baiting conclusions would have us believe.

Not only are people more likely to reply to a suitor from a different race, the users under analysis were then likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future. Catfish come in all colors, it seems.

 The tendency to initiate contact within primarily within one's own race is weakest among whites and strongest among Asians and Indians, while 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's examination of romantic social networks considered only heterosexual interactions, for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings, and only those individuals who self-identify with one and only one of the top five racial categories: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian). 

The first message sent and the first reply received were analyzed. The content was stripped out and only data on the sender, receiver and timestamp of the message were available.  

Lewis unites his varied findings with an explanation that 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 first, their assumptions are falsified—and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future," he believes.

The effect was short-lived, however: People go back to habitual patterns in about a week. 

Why? "The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo, by the normal state of affairs," Lewis speculates. "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 believes he was able to adequately control for these factors in his analysis.

Not only does dating on the internet have more and more social impact, he said – the most rigorous estimates suggest that nowadays over 20 percent of heterosexual and nearly 70 percent of same-sex relationships begin online – but it is also a novel and rich source of data. Previous work on mate selection has often been based on marriage records, which don't contain any information about a romance's early days, or on self-report surveys, when people are more likely to present themselves in the best, least-prejudiced light.

These "digital footprints" of online interactions can give us a glimpse of interpersonal dynamics at the very start of romantic relationships. And Lewis takes heart from his analysis of interactions on OkCupid. We can, he believes, begin to change our ingrained patterns of choosing partners –because they are often based on false premises.

The sociologist's cautiously optimistic conclusion is that "racial boundaries are more fragile than we think." When, against the odds, A writes B of another race and B replies, B becomes more open him- or herself in the near term. The "consequences of this action are self-reinforcing," Lewis writes in PNAS, "and might potentially set in motion a chain of future interracial contact among others."

Citation: Kevin Lewis, 'The limits of racial prejudice', PNAS November 4, 2013 doi:10.1073/pnas.1308501110