is the concept of white privilege outdated? a guest post by chris martin
Chris Martin is a graduate student in sociology at Emory University. This post summarizes some of his recent work.
Is the Concept of White Privilege Outdated?
Sociologists don’t just try to come up with nomothetic laws of social phenomena. We also document the current state of social affairs. This presents a challenge that other social scientists (except maybe political scientists) don’t face. We have to come up with constructs that work well for the present, but we also have to retire those concepts a few decades down the road. One of the problematic things about the construct of White privilege, for instance, which certainly had validity when it was coined, is that now glosses over many of the “paradoxes” in the literature (e.g., the Black–White mental health paradox, the Hispanic health paradox). As a result, when people rely on White privilege as a heuristic, it can lead to errors of judgment
In a recent study, John Nezlek and I investigated whether people in general have absorbed the idea of racial hierarchy to such a degree that they believe that Whites set a ceiling on desirable social outcomes. We shouldn’t expect to see this in domains like sports, where the achievements of non-Whites are widely broadcast, but we should expect to see it elsewhere. Our survey showed that people did in fact set this ceiling on median income. On average, people estimated that median Asian-American household income was slightly less than median White household income, even though the opposite has been true for over three decades. Moreover, their estimates of Asian-American income, in both signed and absolute terms, were uniquely poor.
In a follow-up study, we measured the degree to which respondents believed that Whites were privileged and advantaged. As anticipated, people who rated Whites as highly privileged made the most egregious errors when estimating the Asian–White income difference. People who rated Whites as mildly privileged were also inaccurate, but to smaller degree. It would obviously be helpful to see if this effect replicates across other dimensions like mental and physical health, but I think it illustrates the current limitations of using White privilege as a heuristic, and the limitations of the White privilege construct itself.