Most people want to believe that their place in the world is something they earned, either through hard work, preparation, or both. I understand this sentiment. As a native of a country that reveres Horatio Alger-inspired tales of upward mobility, the idea that our status might be attributed to something we can’t control seems unfathomable.
It’s time we get over all that. White privilege is invisible, unearned and can include both societal, material or psychological advantages solely based on skin color. Specifically, white skin. Because it privilege is generally invisible, many refuse to believe it exists. As in the case of climate change, however, science continues to solidly disprove such denials.
Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, economists at the University of Queensland, have published their working paper “Still Not Allowed on the Bus,” highlighting the way unconscious bias favors light-skinned populations in everyday situations. Analyzed in The New York Times by Yale law professor Ian Ayres, the two studies found “substantial, statistically significant race discrimination” among bus drivers in Australia.
This research, Ayres believes, is some of the first to focus on “discretionary accommodations.” That’s important for two reasons. On a basic level, quantifying bias with data can go a long way toward convincing skeptical or ignorant. But, Ayres notes, it can be especially hard to find authority figures blatantly discriminating against minorities, something the Queensland researchers capture. Usually, it’s more subtle, involving the granting of extra privileges to non-minorities, not taking them away.
The research was conducted in Queensland, Australia, a place its authors liken to the American South. The study’s decision to study transportation was also an intentional nod to the now famous discrimination experienced by Rosa Parks on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955.
The researchers found that out of 1,500 people, bus drivers were twice as likely to allow white subjects on the bus who claimed they didn’t have the $3.50 fare required to ride (on average 72 versus 36%) than black test riders. Passengers of Indian or South Asian descent were allowed on the bus without the correct fare 51% of the time. East Asians meanwhile were allowed on the bus in percentages at or above those for whites.
Mujcic, a research fellow at the University of Queensland, explained to Quartz in an e-mail why it’s so important to study the way these types of structural biases manifest themselves on something as simple as your daily commute. “Quantifying privilege or favoritism towards different individuals and groups is quite difficult using observational or survey data as there are many other factors and biases which can be at play,” he said. “However, the use of natural field experiments, where the decision makers go about their everyday lives while being unaware of taking part in a study, along with the researcher’s ability to randomize the transactions of interest, has been a very useful and popular method in recent times. It introduces realism and randomization, leading to objective measures of bias.”
It’s an important distinction to make, and even his own research proved that one’s perception of one’s own bias might be inaccurate. For example, in a smaller complementary study, bus drivers were shown photographs of potential fare-less riders and asked how they would respond to a request for a free ride. The researchers found the drivers exhibited much less bias,. In fact, 86% said they would let blacks stay on their bus without the correct fare, a rate much higher than what was observed in practice.
This is far from the first time empirical research has examined the ways in which prejudice subtly, yet consistently, shades societal interactions. Whether it’s favoritism for Anglo sounding names, white felons receiving more job callbacks than black men without offenses, or white homebuyers being offered better mortgages, the benefits of whiteness are depressingly pervasive.
Importantly, this most recent study also speaks to the intersectional nature of bias—while white privilege tends to dominate the conversation, socioeconomic status can also be a factor, particularly for black people. Black subjects in the bus study wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase were more likely to be let on the bus without correct fare, for example. There was an even bigger jump for blacks wearing a military uniform: 77% were let on the bus ( for comparison, whites in army uniforms were accepted 97% of the time).
The study did not draw any hard conclusions about the motivations of the bus drivers, but Mujcic said they were most likely motivated by unintentional biases driven by “past experiences or actions involving the given racial/ethnic groups.”
“One possible explanation for the findings is that the bus drivers are unconsciously discriminating against the minority groups by associating them with particular behaviours upon observing their race or ethnicity,” he said. “This is known as implicit discrimination and is most likely apparent in settings where quick decisions are needed to be made, such as in the environment under study. Thus, the black and Indian groups may, for example, be at first viewed by bus drivers as being relatively more associated with dishonesty (or other negative traits) than the white and Asian groups.”
Like the US, Australia has struggled with race. The country, which is dominated by a majority 92 %white population, followed by Asians at a distant 7%, has a less than stellar reputation for racial tolerance among its peers. Still the Queensland researchers say Australians and Americans are more alike than we might like to think. “The current results are consistent with the kind of privilege that is observed in the US and other countries where majorities are found to be treated much better than minorities, even in non-market contexts,” Mujcic said.
In an era when colored water fountains are outlawed, this type of research is an important tool to highlight the insidiousness of discriminatory favoritism—and the sometimes inadvertent role we play in its perpetuation. “A police officer is an out-and-out bigot if she targets innocent blacks for speeding tickets. But an officer who is more likely to give a pass to white motorists who exceed the speed limit than to black ones is also discriminating, even if with little or no conscious awareness,” Ayres noted in the Times.
Those Australian drivers may not have harbored any ill-will, but in a casual setting, their bias revealed itself over and over again. Privilege comes in many different forms; I’m the first to admit the ways I myself have benefited from class privilege. But while no one wants to admit that they didn’t work just as hard as their peers, admitting one’s privilege is a vital step towards change. Denial is easy, accountability is hard. Unfortunately, the latter is the only way society will be able to start tearing down the systems of oppression—both big and small—that continue to plague societies all over the world.