by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[A] recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that the idea of white privilege may have an unexpected drawback: It can reduce the empathy among some for white people who are struggling with poverty. The paper finds that social liberals — people who have socially liberal views on the major political issues — are actually less likely to empathize with a poor white person’s plight after being given a reading on white privilege. …
… The results surprised the researchers. [Colgate University social psychologist Erin] Cooley had wondered if teaching a liberal person about white privilege would increase their sympathy for a poor black person who doesn’t benefit from it. But that’s not what happened.
“Instead, what we found is that when liberals read about white privilege . . . it didn’t significantly change how they empathized with a poor black person — but it did significantly bump down their sympathy for a poor white person,” she says.
Cooley’s finding suggests that lessons about white privilege could persuade social liberals to place greater personal blame on poor white people for their social circumstances, out of the belief that their “privilege” outweighs other social factors that could have brought them to their station in life. At the same time, according to this study, these lessons may not be the most effective way to encourage support for poor African Americans.
So, how can we talk about racial inequality — a very real phenomenon in the United States and the rest of the world — without inadvertently causing people to have less sympathy for poor whites? According to Cooley, part of the answer lies in the difference between understanding individual reality and describing a statistical reality that exists on average.