Social Justice

Liberals Who Learned About White Privilege Became Less Sympathetic to Poor Whites

But their attitudes toward poor blacks remained unchanged, according to a study.


Does educating people about white privilege—the idea that for white people, their race is a boon, but for black people, a drawback, at least in certain social situations—make them more empathetic? A fascinating new study suggests that the kind of racism awareness training taught in many university classrooms is not only useless but may actually be detrimental.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in April. Researchers provided participants with some academic literature explaining the concept of white privilege and then asked them to gauge their reactions to hearing a story about an unfortunate man. For some participants, the man was described as black, for others, he was described as white. Researchers also ran a separate experiment in which the participants were not told about white privilege before reacting to the story. They also queried both sets of participants about their political beliefs.

What they found was that conservatives who had learned about white privilege were no more sympathetic to the poor black man than conservatives who had not learned about white privilege. For liberals, the results were alarming: Liberals who read the educational materials about white privilege were similarly unsympathetic to the poor black man as the liberals in the second experiment, but they were even more unsympathetic to the poor white man.

"What we found startling was that white privilege lessons didn't increase liberals' sympathy for poor Black people," writes Erin Cooley, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University, in an explanatory post for Vice. "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."

In other words, learning about white privilege did not make conservatives more empathetic, and it made some liberals less empathetic, overall.

Reflecting on this finding for Quillette, Zaid Jilani proposes a possible explanation:

What accounts for this? One possibility is that social liberals are internalizing white-privilege lessons in a way that flattens the image of whites, portraying all of them as inherently privileged. So if a white person is poor, it must be his or her own fault. After all, they've had all sorts of advantages in life that others haven't.

This would mean that the sort of social justice training programs offered by numerous universities could be having an undesirable effect, give that most students who enroll in these classes are liberals. To take just one example, the University of Colorado at Denver offers a class called "Problematizing Whiteness: Educating for Racial Justice," in which students are required to look "beyond feel-good momentary White racial awareness" and realize that "whites are complicit." In researching my book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, I found numerous similar examples of academic exercises that blurred the line between anti-racism and anti-whiteness, and between scholarship and activism. It would hardly be surprising if these classes, rather than changing liberal students' feelings toward disadvantaged black people, merely galvanized them against whites.

Reached for comment, Cooley told me that she thought such a course "could amplify the effects as you suggest," but "if the course tackled many different forms of hierarchy (class, ability, gender, sexual orientation), I would hope that students would leave with a more nuanced view of inequality and, thus, perhaps not show the effects we see in our study."