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Talking About White Privilege Can Reduce Liberals' Sympathy for Poor White People

New research finds that social liberals who read about the phenomenon are subsequently less forgiving toward poor whites.
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"Social liberals who think about white privilege may become more likely to blame poor white people for their poverty," researchers write.

In recent years, the rhetoric of white privilege—a recognition that, in American society, Caucasians enjoy certain inherent advantages over people of color—has become increasingly prominent in progressive politics. This development has arguably led to a better understanding of the everyday challenges faced by black Americans and other racial minorities.

But new research suggests that the disseminated idea of white privilege has also produced a problematic backlash. A new study reports that, among Americans who hold liberal views on social issues, contemplating white privilege reduces sympathy for poor white people.

"Social liberals who think about white privilege may become more likely to blame poor white people for their poverty," writes a research team led by Colgate University psychologist Erin Cooley. For such people, exposure to this idea "may increase beliefs that poor white people have failed to take advantage of their racial privilege."

The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, describes two studies. The first featured 484 Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. They began by reading a short essay about white privilege, after which they were asked to come up with two privileges that white Americans enjoy.

The participants then turned to a second experiment, in which they read a newspaper column about a low-income New York City resident and reacted to his story. All were told that the man, "Kevin," had been raised by a single mother, was currently on welfare, and "doesn't feel he has the skills or ability to obtain a well-paying job."

Half were told that the resident was white; the others were informed he was black.

All participants indicated their level of sympathy and compassion for Kevin, and how responsible he was for his dire situation. They then responded to a series of statements reflecting their political ideology, with separate scales measuring their attitudes on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and economic ones such as taxation rates.

The researchers found that "social liberals showed significantly less sympathy for Kevin when he was described as white compared to black." In contrast, social conservatives' attitudes toward the young man were basically the same, no matter his reported race.

"Social liberals were not less sympathetic to the poor white person than social conservatives," the researchers add. "Rather, social liberals expressed comparable levels of sympathy toward the white person as social conservatives, and significantly more sympathy for the poor black person."

The second study, featuring 650 people, was similarly structured, except that this time roughly half of the participants were placed in a "control" condition, in which they did not read about white privilege. The results replicated those of the first study, but added an important piece of information: The white-privilege lesson "did not seem to affect attitudes by increasing sensitivity to the challenges of poor black people; instead, it reduced sympathy for poor white people."

What created this emotional hardening? Perhaps liberals "implicitly play the 'oppression Olympics,'" the researchers write. "That is, they draw upon default hierarchies of groups in order to mentally rank who is worst off." If whites as a group are ranked on top, the struggles of an individual white person "may be more likely to be interpreted as stemming from internal rather than external factors"—i.e., personal laziness as opposed to a lack of opportunities.

They add that such judgments are based on a logical fallacy. While it's true that "the average white person is more likely to have increased inherited wealth, more economic opportunities, and more educational opportunities" than the average person of color, this "certainly would not apply to every white person." The distinction between "average" and "every" apparently gets lost on some ears.

These findings "might help to explain why poor white Americans seem to feel disenfranchised or forgotten by well-off others," Cooley and her colleagues conclude. Given that such voters arguably swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump, it is very much in liberals' self-interest to recognize and correct this blind spot.