Sam Russell suspected his dating startup, Where White People Meet, would ruffle a few Internet feathers. It’s why the site’s “About” page carefully avoids mention of Russell or his wife, Jodie, and why their address is listed as a P.O. box in Dallas.
But 53-year-old Russell — the former owner of a used-car empire and the resident of a Zip code that is 92.4 percent white — swears he isn’t afraid of the backlash to his brand-new dating site.
“It’s about equal opportunity,” Russell explained. “The last thing in the world I am is racist. I dated a black woman once. I helped raise a young black man … I just believe it’s hypocrisy to say ‘one group can do this, but another can’t.'”
This is Russell’s first foray into the online dating industry; he’s spent most of his career in auto sales, as the president of the since-franchised chain Automatic Car Credit Inc. (He still owns the chain’s location in Layton, Utah, in an office that now doubles as the listed HQ for White People Meet.) Out sick from work one day last year, he found himself marveling at the number of Black People Meet ads airing on daytime TV. He and his wife, who technically owns the dating site, quickly became convinced both that online dating was a good pre-retirement business endeavor … and that white people faced a dearth of online dating opportunities.
The couple bought the domain “wherewhitepeoplemeet.com” in May 2015 and commissioned their son, a high school senior, to design it. While an early version has been online since August, the site officially launched last weekend when Russell unveiled an immediately divisive billboard southwest of Salt Lake City.
Although that billboard depicts a smiling white couple, Russell insists that anyone over 18 may join, regardless of race or ethnicity. (“If you’re a black man who prefers to date white women, this might be a good option,” he said — presuming you can get over the object of your affection’s stated racial preferences.) It costs $15 a month to message other members, and the site’s terms of service specifically prohibit messages that “promote racism, bigotry, [or] hatred.”
“The site is not racially motivated in any way,” Russell stressed.
And yet, regardless of what Russell thinks about his site or his own intentions, there’s no denying that dating is racially motivated — and online dating, demonstrably so. Data from OkCupid, the most transparent of the mainstream dating sites, has repeatedly shown a sitewide bias against people of color. (“Every kind of way you can measure their success on a site — how people rate them, how often they reply to their messages, how many messages they get — that’s all reduced,” the site’s data scientist once told NPR.) Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has also found that “racial segregation in romantic networks” is not only “robust,” but “ubiquitous.”
I ask Russell if he’s at all aware or concerned that white people already had the upper hand in online dating.
“It’s our right to have this business,” he replied — the “we” presumably referring to white people, generally. “If we want equal rights in this country, it has to be equal rights for everybody.”
Russell points to his site’s recent traffic as evidence that others agree: More than 100,000 people visited White People Meet on Sunday, and — as of this writing — 1,033 people have registered to browse the site for free. (Russell would not share how many had actually become paying members.) He insists that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive thus far; it’s the people criticizing him, he says, who don’t truly understand the true nature of race and racism.
“I knew there was some potential for backlash, but I’m not going to dodge it,” he said. “No one who knows me would ever call me a racist.”
Update: This story initially said that Sam Russell’s wife’s name was Tami. Tami is Russell’s ex-wife; his current wife’s name is Jodie. We regret the error.
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