Study: Teaching liberals about white privilege reveals 'startling' blind spot

Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives react after learning about "white privilege".

West Virginia men. 2018. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
  • Psychologists looked at how liberals and conservatives viewed poor people after learning about "white privilege".
  • Conservatives didn't show much sympathy for poor people regardless of race.
  • Liberals seemed to blame poor white people for their problems.

Is there a blind spot in the sympathies of liberals? A recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, looked at what happened when "social liberals" were educated about "white privilege". While they did become more aware of the benefits being white might afford in society, the liberal-minded also exhibited less sympathy for poor white people.

Polls show that liberals are generally more focused on race and racism as being a bigger social problem than conservatives. To gauge whether other issues like the poverty of whites is perceived as less important, the team of researchers carried out two studies.

The participants included 650 liberals and conservatives from all over the U.S. for an online study. 68.8% of the subjects were white and 16% were black.

The researchers randomly split the participants into two cohorts. One was read about white privilege and was asked to identify some examples of privileges enjoyed by white people in the U.S. For example, "White people are never asked to speak for all people of their racial group". The other group received no such instruction.

Participants were then read passages about a poor white man or a poor Black man. He was identified by name (Kevin), his location (NYC), and the facts that he was raised by a single mom and lived in poverty all his life. Now he was supposedly on welfare. The only difference in the biographical information was whether he was black or white.

What the scientists found was that liberals who learned about white privilege were more sympathetic to Kevin if he was described as being Black (rather than white). Conservatives, on the other hand, were found to express low levels of sympathy for poor people, no matter what race they were. It also didn't matter to them if they read about white privilege prior to that.

In a finding that the study's author and psychology professor Erin Cooley of Colgate University called "startling" in her article for Vice, being educated in white privilege didn't grow the sympathy for poor black people among the liberals. Rather they blamed poor white people for their poverty, as if they could have done better considering all the privileges they supposedly received because of their race.

Professor Cooley, who describes herself as a liberal, thinks the assumptions behind such thinking leaves the poor white people neglected because they are "violating stereotypes of their race (i.e., that white people are wealthy)" and this "may present its own complexities to how white people feel subjectively and how they are treated when they are poor."

Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story

Cooley points out that despite the fact that their studies highlight the complexities among how Americans of all persuasions feel about race and class, teaching about white privilege is extremely important. According to the professor, such information highlights persistent societal racism like police brutality. It is also important, says Cooley, to take a more "intersectional lens" towards talking about privilege. Privilege can come from numerous factors – class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation etc. As such, "most of us have experienced both privilege and marginalization at some point," she points out.

You can read the study, very descriptively titled "Complex Intersections of Race and Class: Among Social Liberals, Learning About White Privilege Reduces Sympathy, Increases Blame, and Decreases External Attributions for White People Struggling With Poverty," here.

The research was carried out by the psychologists Erin Cooley and William Cipolli III of Colgate University, as well as Ryan F. Lei from New York University, and Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi of the University of Kentucky.

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