The Disturbing Thing I Learned Studying White Privilege and Liberals

I found a blind spot in my empathy, and our study confirmed it.

May 7 2019, 2:35pm

At the United the Right Rally and protest in Charlottesville in 2017, America's racial tension was on display. Image: Rodney Dunning/Flickr

I’m a white college professor who studies racism, about to marry a white man who grew up poor. The first several months of our relationship were a delicate dance of conversations about race and social class. Given a career focused on race, I was fixated on the privileges of being a white man. I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning that white male poverty wasn’t exactly the worst injustice out there.

I had evidence on my side. Poor white men can hide being poor more than Black people can hide being Black. And there are plenty of systemic barriers my fiancé was unlikely to face as he made his way up to being the successful professor he is today. Still, the fact that he was a poor white man had escaped my empathy radar. I wondered whether this might be connected to my liberal worldview.

Recent polls suggest that liberals perceive racism to be a “bigger problem” than conservatives. And social and political psychologists have long documented that liberals (vs. conservatives) tend to be more distressed by the presence of racial inequality. But, does the liberal focus on white privilege decrease sensitivity to the challenges that poor whites face too?

To answer this question, my team at Colgate University, University of Kentucky, and NYU conducted a couple of studies, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, to examine the effects of white privilege lessons on sympathy for poor white people.

The fact that he was a poor white man had escaped my empathy radar

We recruited 650 liberals and conservatives, the majority of whom were white (68.8%) or Black (16%), from across the United States to complete our study online. At the start of the study, we randomly divided participants into two groups. One group read about white privilege and were asked to list several privileges experienced by white people in America (e.g., “White people are never asked to speak for all people of their racial group”). The other group did not learn about white privilege at all.

Participants then read about either a poor white man, or a poor Black man. All of the participants learned that the man’s name was Kevin, that he lived in NYC, was raised by a single mom, struggled with poverty his whole life, and was currently receiving welfare assistance. The only difference was his race.

As we expected, liberals who learned about white privilege expressed more sympathy toward Kevin when he was described as Black (vs. white). In contrast, conservatives expressed relatively low levels of sympathy for the poor regardless of race and regardless of whether they read about white privilege.

However, what we found startling was that white privilege lessons didn’t increase liberals’ sympathy for poor Black people. Instead, these lessons decreased liberals’ sympathy for poor white people, which led them to blame white people more for their own poverty. They seemed to think that if a person is poor despite all the privileges of being white, there must really be something wrong with them.

Image: Journal of Experimental Psychology

These findings felt both personal and frustrating. Personal, because they suggested that being liberal may have contributed to my struggle to fully sympathize with poor white men—even the one I was falling in love with. Frustrating, because they suggested that discussing white privilege may not always increase sympathy for struggling Black people—an important part of my work.

The United States has become increasingly politically polarized in recent years. And, I share the concern of many about increasing divisions in our country and especially the increasing amount of open hate toward others based on their race/ethnicity. Yet, I also need to question the role that I may play in amplifying these divisions. My prior insensitivity to the experiences of poor white people might be just the type of attitude that contributes to an increasingly polarized US political climate—a climate that ultimately causes further harm to Black people too.

These complexities are not new. The intersection of race and social class has been complicated in the United States for a long time. And, to this day, people assume poor people are Black and white people are wealthy. This anti-black prejudice then leads to less support for wealth redistribution (because people are imagining black people when they imagine welfare recipients—we have a paper showing this and another on how to combat it.) However, these widespread assumptions that black = poor and white = wealthy, also mean that poor white people are violating stereotypes of their race (i.e., that white people are wealthy) which may present its own complexities to how white people feel subjectively and how they are treated when they are poor.

I think the crucial question, then, is how can we help people recognize the real barriers that Black Americans face, without becoming numb to the problems that other groups have to deal with?

The intersection of race and social class has been complicated in the United States for a long time

I feel strongly that white privilege lessons are still important because they highlight the fact that racism persists in our society. In fact, across several studies, which we are preparing for publication, we find that teaching people about white privilege leads both liberals and conservatives to be more likely to perceive racism when Black (vs. white) men are shot by police. Thus, instead of trying to decide whether white privilege lessons are “good” or “bad,” we should think more about whether they are likely to have the effects we intend.

One possibility is that discussions of privilege may benefit from taking a more intersectional lens. For example, although privilege certainly occurs because of race, it can also emerge based on social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, nationality, and so on. Because of this, most of us have experienced both privilege and marginalization at some point.

Due to the persistence of racism, Black people face larger hurdles to escaping poverty than do white people: this fact has not changed. However, suffering is not a zero-sum game.

Erin Cooley is an assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University. Her research examines the cognitive, affective, and physiological mechanisms behind intergroup conflict and discrimination.