White Privilege Is Real, and Now There’s Research to Prove it
Thursday marked the third anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s untimely death at the hands of self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. The incident continues to stoke the debate around race relations in America, reopening wounds and splitting the nation along color lines. But who can forget the controversy that erupted after President Obama famously weighed in on Martin’s death, acknowledging that he could have met a similar fate as a teen?
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the president said shortly after Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal.
Many Americans accused the president of being “divisive” and “playing the race card.” But a new study by Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, two economists at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, have proved what Obama was hinting at in his remarks: White privilege is real.
You might learn in history class that America was founded on the ideals of white supremacy (the Constitution affirmed the idea that African Americans were only three-fifths human), but there are those who still doubt that racism and white privilege affect us in modern times. Some people question whether white Americans, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, enjoy any sort of privilege at all.
Mujcic and Frijters’ research confirms they do. The pair conducted a large-scale social experiment across the state of Queensland to find out if white people received special treatment over people of color. According to the researchers, Australia’s treatment of black Aboriginals mimics the plight of African Americans. For instance, black Aboriginals only secured the right to vote in 1963, two years before the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in the United States. Three out of four modern-day indigenous Australians say they regularly experience racism, and 88 percent of African Americans feel that discrimination against black people persists.
Against this backdrop, Mujcic and Frijters spearheaded an ambitious experiment to see how race and privilege play out in everyday life. The researchers tasked 29 young adult riders of white, Asian, Indian, and black descent to board buses with an empty transit card and see whether or not drivers would let them ride for free. Participants were told to say, “I do not have any money, but I need to get to the [XX] station,” with XX station being out of walking distance. After analyzing more than 1,500 social interactions, what the researchers found was astounding.
Asian and white participants were able to ride for free at nearly identical rates (72 percent), but bus drivers often declined the requests of black and Indian passengers. Fifty-one percent of free-ride requests from Indian riders were honored, while requests from black riders were twice as likely as those from whites and Asians to be turned down, with only 36 percent being able to board the bus and ride without paying.
The disparities continued even when the subjects were dressed in business suits or military uniforms, with 67 percent of black and 83 percent of Indian passengers being allowed to ride for free compared with 97 percent of whites. Interestingly, black drivers also opted to give white riders a free pass in larger numbers than black riders (83 percent versus 68 percent), further highlighting the insidiousness of systematic racism and the engrained privilege white people enjoy.
This privilege, or rather white folks’ ability to avoid painful racial macro- and microaggressions, is felt in nearly every sector of society. In the workforce it manifests in employers choosing to interview candidates with “white” names over those with “ethnic” ones. In universities it shows up in schools giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni or donors while refusing to factor in race. And in the justice system, white privilege means African Americans make up 57 percent of the people in state prison for drug offenses, even though blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates and whites sell drugs at higher rates.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some Americans still doubt that white people benefit on the sole basis of their race.
“It’s heartbreaking that we have to have this conversation with people that we interact with on a daily basis who don’t understand,” says Monica Castillo, a cultural critic who writes about media diversity. “How many more times does it take before you notice?”
Castillo cites New York City’s stop and frisk policy, which was deemed unconstitutional because it disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic residents, and the recent lawsuit levied against Ferguson, Missouri, for paying for city services by stopping black motorists at alarming rates.
With so much inequality still entrenched in various systems across America, it’s easy to become frustrated and doubtful that anything can change, but Castillo is cautiously optimistic.
“I think there is something to be said that we’re having this conversation now,” she says, pointing out the fact that Americans are talking about race a lot more now than they have over the past decade.
“Now we can open up and have these conversations, but we need to cross over to the point where people are listening. We may just need more examples [that privilege exists],” Castillo says.