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is the concept of white privilege outdated?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Is the Concept of White Privilege Outdated?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.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 13, 2014 at 9:03 am

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46 Responses

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  1. So, to recap. People seem to mistakenly ascribe higher incomes to whites than Asian Americans, and you conclude that the concept of white privilege is totally obsolete?

    Seems like quite a reach.

    Like

    guest

    November 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

  2. I do not think it sounds like you are testing white privilege, which is a more complicated (some would say poorly defined) construct. White privilege refers to benefits, not judgments.

    Like

    Do not agree

    November 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm

  3. You are not testing White privilege, you are testing views about Asians. In addition, using Asian American household income is not a good measure–you should use individual income instead. One of the most important reasons why Asian American household income is higher than White household income is that Asian Americans have, on average, more income-earning adults in the household than do Whites.

    Liked by 1 person

    Mikaila

    November 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

  4. Apart from the obvious problems that “white privilege” is a different concept from “inherited disadvantage” and that generalized ignorance is more or less a feature of the US and that the fact that Asians have different experiences from Blacks in how “racial” difference is enacted in their lives does not somehow mean that “white privilege” does not exist, we may as well introduce some more complexity by pointing to the actual wide variations in the “Asian” category. Phil Cohen just happened to post on “Asian” divorce rates today, and thereby linked to an older post on “Asian” incomes. The bottom line is that the different ethnic/national groups that are lumped together in the US as Asian are very different from each other.
    http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/asian-divorce-rate/
    http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/do-asians-in-the-u-s-have-high-incomes/

    Liked by 1 person

    olderwoman

    November 13, 2014 at 2:23 pm

  5. The only people who have privilege are the people who have privilege. Skin color is a poor proxy and hides social conflicts, such as the rich whites from places like Connecticut who can’t stand other sorts of whites.
    There is active discrimination going on, since the wealthier classes want to use academia and corporate contacts to secure their children a lucrative ‘career.’ They tend to shield themselves from intelligent competitors from the larger gene pool.

    Liked by 1 person

    August

    November 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm

  6. I think a few of the comments miss the point. The author does not intend to write on ‘white privilege’ per se, but rather on the use of white privilege as an analytical stand-in. What the author attempts to show is that if you rely on ‘white privilege’ as a “heuristic,” you’re going to be wrong about important social facts — even in areas (like income distribution, or as one commenter put it, “benefits”) where white privilege would seem to be relevant.

    In this sense the study might show that ‘white privilege’ — as a way of looking at the world — is not outdated as much as it needs to be updated.

    Or maybe I’m the one who’s missed the point.

    Liked by 3 people

    Austen

    November 13, 2014 at 2:36 pm

  7. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Austen’s comment captures the point I was trying to make. Any concept that simplifies the world is going to mislead people to some degree. However, we have to make subjective judgments about when our concepts are so misleading that they need to be retired or revised. The judgment of what’s important is subjective, but to me, it’s important that people have basic factual knowledge about the income, wealth, and health distributions, and I think the “white privilege” concept is increasing misunderstandings in these areas.

    Olderwoman, variance exists on every sociological factor, so pointing to variance doesn’t itself mean anything. There’s a reference in my paper to Hmong income, that points to a reference in the literature about how the variance argument can be misused with regard to Asians. Basically there’s variation in what constitutes White as well, with Amish people counting as White but having quite different standing on social indicators.

    Mikaila, to your point, I *am* testing views about Asians, but more than that, my focus is the relative standing of every category relative to every other category. The fact that people made particularly bad estimates of the one racial group that surpasses Whites is telling. I think household income is a good measure because households are meaningful. The fact that Asian Americans have, on average, more income-earning adults in the household than do Whites is not a bug, but a feature. In addition, the low-income of an individual doesn’t necessarily indicate deprivation or poverty; it could indicate sufficient household income from another person in the household. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to run this study with individual incomes, and I may do that in 2015.

    Like

    Chris M

    November 13, 2014 at 4:57 pm

  8. I am really suspect of postings like this. In not being a mental health researcher I just looked up the “Black–White mental health paradox.” It seems that most of these studies recognize “white privilege” before they assert that blacks are better equipped at dealing with structural biases than whites. A much cited article on this topic concludes:

    “Findings reveal that Blacks have lower rates of several common mental disorders, but Blacks also have higher rates of flourishing than Whites. Blacks are mentally resilient in the face of greater social inequality and exposure to discrimination as well as high rates of physical morbidity—all of which are distinctive risk factors for mental distress and mental illness in the general population.”

    Keyes, C. L. (2009). The Black–White paradox in health: Flourishing in the face of social inequality and discrimination. Journal of personality, 77(6), 1677-1706.

    Like

    come on man

    November 13, 2014 at 4:58 pm

  9. If the point is predicated on the concept of white privilege, the point might as well be missed.

    Like

    August

    November 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm

  10. Let me put it simply: Asian Americans do not experience racial privilege in American society. They may come out ahead on specific, carefully-chosen measures designed to make them look like they are doing better than they are, but research clearly shows that Asian Americans experience discrimination in the workplace and educational spheres that Whites do not. Privilege is not a measure of income; it is a measure of overall advantage in a society, and Whites clearly have more. I could go on for pages and pages about all the ways in which Asians are not privileged. Furthermore, if you read Peggy McIntosh’s articulation of the concept of White privilege, you will not find income on her list of privilege statements, so it seems a particularly bad measure of this concept. Therefore, your study may be measuring whether belief in the concept of White privilege leads to mistaken financial assumptions, but it does not measure anything about the validity of the concept itself.

    Like

    mmlarthur

    November 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm

  11. Thanks for the original post. Philosophers of science find this to be good science, rather than clinging to tired metaphysics. But now you see the problem with nomothetic approaches (BTW, there are no laws in social science.) in highly fragmented societies. Generalization fails not far from idiographic knowledge.

    Like

    Randy

    November 13, 2014 at 5:21 pm

  12. @mmlarthur: I think that’s the point of the OP. The use of the concept privilege has become so expansive that it means anything and everything. Think about how many terms the word privilege is attached to now. Thin-privilege, light-skinned-privilege, male-privilege, cis-privilege etc. The OP is trying to operationalize privilege and studying it. I have always been skeptical about the concept of privilege because it is extremely difficult to operationalize and study it empirically and systematically.

    Liked by 1 person

    peter

    November 13, 2014 at 5:44 pm

  13. Who made more egregious errors when estimating the Black-White wealth gap, or the Latina/o-White wealth gap? Those with higher white privilege beliefs, or lower?

    Like

    coqui21

    November 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm

  14. With the obvious caveat that “white privilege” is such a contested term that there’s not one over-riding definition of it, I’m still not seeing how income differentials are a likely choice for a “white privilege” heuristic. None of the definitions I’ve seen have mentioned income or anything like it as a form of “white privilege.” The more common definition is that it is a judgment of worth than anything else; that white people and/or their practices are somehow better. So if someone was relying on a “white privilege” heuristic, they would be expecting that white people would be treated better under the same circumstances as various non-white groups.

    So it seems like a better example of a white privilege heuristic would be something to do with criminal justice sentences. If there was no gap in white/Asian sentencing but people thought there was, that might be an example of an incorrect “white privilege” heuristic.

    Like

    Do not agree

    November 13, 2014 at 6:11 pm

  15. mmlarthur raises an interesting point about ” carefully-chosen measures”. If one is going to test a heuristic, wouldn’t it be better to test it across a variety of outcomes and comparisons (e.g. not just white v Asian)? My guess is that if you tested the white privilege heuristic against a “reverse racism” heuristic across health, economic, criminal justice, and social outcomes and for different comparisons the white privilege hueristic would have a better prediction rate.

    Although to be honest my sense is that mainstream sociologists adhere more to a “black disadvantage” heuristic (e.g. Lee and Bean’s Reininventing the Color Line) than to the white privilege one, and I would put my money on that one winning out over both white privilege and reverse racism.

    Like

    joshtk76

    November 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

  16. The reactions to this study are funny, because no one seems to recognize that the study is basically proving the thing it thinks it’s disproving: The implications are that people tend to assume whites have more income, more education, etc etc, even when they don’t….which means people are making implicit evaluations about whites’ status *and will therefore treat them differently according to those assumptions.* So, then, the poor white dude can walk into Saks and get better service than would be predicted by his income alone, since salespeople assume he’s got $$ to spend. Even if he doesn’t. Which is, like, one of the more basic applications of the term “white privilege:” that whites are given the benefit of the doubt even in situations when they shouldn’t be.

    Martin seems to want this to be a provocative finding framed as unfair discrimination toward whites (or asians, or something…), but in the end finds a dynamic consistent with white privilege.

    Liked by 2 people

    J

    November 13, 2014 at 7:13 pm

  17. I apologize for noticing this late, but I just noticed that the hyperlink to my journal article got deleted during the publishing process. Here’s the journal article:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0108732

    Some of your concerns were also brought up by reviewers, and we addressed them in the introduction section.

    Like

    Chris M

    November 13, 2014 at 7:22 pm

  18. I think this discussion would benefit from Chris and some of his more supportive commenters actually identifying who exactly they have in mind with this ‘white privilege’ thing. In other words what academic treatments of ‘white privilege’ uses the term as inanely as suggested in the original post? If posters can demonstrate that when scholars use ‘white privilege’ they mean that whites should come out on top of literally every statistical measure, then I’m ready to admit that the research discussed above tells us at least a tiny bit of useful knowledge about the world. Otherwise, evidence of people giving inaccurate answers about the relatively few measures in which whites don’t come out on top (even though they are still #2 in even that category!!) tells us absolutely nothing about whether or not the ‘white privilege’ assumption no longer fits our reality.

    My guess is that they are reacting to Salon and Huff post articles, in which case we have on our hands the broader problem of sorting out the differences in what concepts are supposed to do in Op-Ed articles vs peer-reviewed research. That problem of course is bigger than the ‘white privilege’ concept, so I would need to know what purpose it serves to single it out as if it were unique.

    A final point is that I don’t get how the OP is using “updated.” I wonder if there was ever a time in which whites came up on top of literally every good statistic imaginable. By the OP’s logic, finding only one statistic topped by a nonwhite group is evidence that white privilege is a useless concept

    Liked by 1 person

    guest2

    November 13, 2014 at 8:44 pm

  19. I think it is interesting to think about how non-sociologists (students in a sociology intro class, readers of an op-ed, etc) might react when they hear the words ‘white privilege.’ Do they immediately think like a sociologist, and assume that the privilege is highly contextualized, here but not there, there but not here? I mean, why would a non-sociologist immediately assume that white privilege extends to some circumstances, but not others?

    I think this post is interesting for the sociology of knowledge embedded in it, and how sociologists might think about the concepts they create and the language they use. Clearly, US society creates more white privilege than, um, white un-privilege (e.g. incarceration rates). But context is really all that matters; and this context is changing, no? Does using the same old concept, which once was useful, maintain its utility over time? I think raising the general question of sociological language, and how it affects socialized knowledge, is the theoretical contribution of this post.

    Like

    Austen

    November 14, 2014 at 12:09 am

  20. The standard “white privilege” exercise (McIntosh) emphasizes race/majority privilege, not class privilege or economic disadvantage. It emphasizes issues of representation, tokenism, stereotyping. So, despite being born and raised in the US, my PhD-bearing Chinese-American colleague gets asked on an airplane out of Madison, “do you speak English?”– while reading the New York Times, no less. The experience of being “otherized” and treated as foreign is part of the experience of all Asian Americans, regardless of income.

    White privilege is the privilege of taking yourself for granted and not having always to be reminded that you are white and that others judge you for being white and as an example of whites in general. It is about fitting in to the majority and not standing out, being able to choose whether or not to identify yourself as a minority. That is what “white privilege” is as the concept is generally taught by the people who teach it. Or I suppose, I should hope that is how it is taught.

    The interesting things appear to be that popular conceptions of “white privilege” appear to associate the term only with economics and/or that people are just generally ignorant about the average economic standing of Asians in the US and/or that people who are conscious of “white privilege” who don’t know better guess that Asian incomes are lower.

    In case you don’t know and are wondering, Asian American incarceration rates are substantially lower than White incarceration rates, but Pacific Islander rates, and especially Native Hawaiian rates, are higher.

    To Chris Margin (who perhaps did not choose the title), I would caution you that it is important to distinguish popular (mis-)understandings of a concept from what your colleagues are actually writing and teaching.

    Yes, it is important to unpack the different experiences of different groups. But there are very few visible minorities in the US who don’t think there is such a thing as white privilege, even when they are highly educated and affluent professionals.

    Like

    olderwoman

    November 14, 2014 at 3:12 am

  21. Operationalization aside, I’ve been telling my students for years that I don’t think “privilege” is a good political frame as it implies taking away things from people rather than asserting that everyone deserves to be treated as the “privileged” are. This is not to dispute the underlying empirical reality of the concept, rather it’s framing.

    The NY Times recently published an interview that states this better than I could: “The term “white privilege” is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. But I think that is what “white privilege” is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do.”

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/05/what-white-privilege-really-means/

    Like

    cwalken

    November 14, 2014 at 5:57 am

  22. come on man: I’m familiar with Corey Keyes’s research; he’s my advisor, and I cited him in our article. We distinguish between the idea that the White privilege concept is problematic, and the idea that minorities experience discrimination. Our research is primarily concerned with whether the White privilege concept is problematic.

    mmlarthur: It depends on what dimension you focus on. There are some positive stereotypes about Asians, and in situations where those attributes are pertinent Asians may be privileged. I don’t think we have enough research on those areas, so it’s an open issue. Also, to quote from our study:

    “In a recent cross-national survey [25], only a small percentage (13%) of Asian Americans viewed discrimination against their group as a major problem. When asked about whether their Asian identity makes a difference when it comes to gaining admission into colleges, finding a job, and getting a promotion, the percentage of respondents who stated that their identity would help matched or surpassed the percentages who stated it would hurt. In addition, approximately 60% of participants stated that their identity would neither help nor hurt them. Furthermore, 91% reported that they get along “very well” or “pretty well” with Whites. “

    So it would also be helpful to know why a non-trivial percentage of Asians state that identity would help in some contexts.

    I know that Peggy McIntosh’s articulation of the concept doesn’t include income, but there are many problems with Peggy McIntosh’s articulation of White privilege. I think her article was useful in getting people to think about an aspect of racial advantage that many whites hadn’t considered at the time. But it doesn’t represent the current state of discourse. White privilege currently entails both privileges (like those on the McIntosh list) and advantages (like income).

    coqui21: This is a rough estimation, but people who were one point higher than average (in belief in White privilege) were more accurate in estimating the Black-White income gap, but people who were two points higher than average overshot, and were thus inaccurate. For the Hispanic-White gap, the correlation was similar to the Asian-White gap. (From Figure 1, you can see that there was a minor underestimation of Hispanic income and overestimation of Black income.)

    Do not agree: We weren’t just examining whether people were relying on a heuristic. We were quantifying the strength of their reliance. We put belief in White privilege on a linear scale so that we could differentiate between people who believe Whites are slightly privileged and people who believe Whites are highly privileged. When people believe Whites are highly privileged, their estimates tend to be further from reality. (See the Method section for Study 3, and the second paragraph in the corresponding Results and Discussion section.)

    J: That would be true if Asians were underestimated to the point that people thought they were poor. But Asian and White income were estimated as approximately the same. So it’s likely that an Asian would get the same treatment at Saks. However, to your larger point—yes, you can legitimately construe our results as showing that there is a bias against Asians because they are underestimated.

    guest2: People frequently bring up the “relatively few” objection. There are two counter-arguments. First, it’s not the number of dimension that counts but the importance of those dimensions. Income, education, and health, are “only” three dimensions, but they are very important. Second, Whites lag behind at least one other group in income, education, mental health, physical health, and longevity.

    olderwoman: I’m not sure how Pacific Islander rates are relevant to a discussion of Asians. I know that the Census bureau lumps them with Asians, but there’s no meaningful reason to do so. And unadjusted disparities don’t necessarily entail discrimination. (Also, this is really minor, but it’s Martin, not Margin.)

    cwalken: McIntosh made that point in the original article too. I think the tricky issue here is separating stereotype accuracy from under-privilege. That’s also a morally loaded issue because, as Jonathan Haidt has noted, stereotype accuracy is taboo among many liberals when there stereotypes in question apply to victimized groups.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 15, 2014 at 6:35 am

  23. Chris: I think I may have misinterpreted your summary of your work, but your explanation here raises more questions. My main objection to your findings was that income isn’t a good measure of white privilege. But if you have a separate white privilege scale and you’re looking at the relationship between income misconceptions and the and a different scale measuring the “white privilege” heuristic, then your study makes much more sense.
    Of course, that also makes you vulnerable to the criticism that you have misinterpreted how people are reading the income gap question, per Mikaila’s comment earlier. If people are reading that question and interpreting it as individual income, then that changes quite a bit. In fact, a cursory glance at the individual income statistics shows that Asian-Americans and white folks have very similar personal median incomes. That is consistent with the confidence intervals you present in your paper, where there appears to be substantial overlap in your confidence intervals (especially study 3).
    Similarly, I wonder how the sample of MTurk is affecting this. My sense is that MTurk is going to have people with higher incomes and better education. That’s not a big deal if you’re doing randomized assignment of some kind, but that’s not what is going on here. Judgments about income seem likely to be heavily biased by reference group. I have no idea how that would change the results, but it raises additional concerns.
    The poverty numbers also confuse me. Why do people consistently make the mistake of higher rates of poverty for whites, but not Asians? Is the difference score for white-Asian rates also attributable to a white privilege heuristic? After all, if the focus is on the white privilege heuristic, it seems like any errors in judgment should be strongest for white people.
    But even if all of this doesn’t apply, we’re left with the question everyone else is talking about above: So what? None of this has anything to do with whether white privilege is an “outdated” concept, since people’s accuracy of white privilege itself isn’t tested. Income still isn’t a measure of white privilege (according to any definition of white privilege I’ve ever seen, and McIntosh is only one of many). So if all the other critiques above are off-base, this is a study of how people can inaccurately apply a heuristic based on an otherwise accurate theory. The accuracy of “white privilege” as a concept can be addressed empirically can be addressed without asking anyone’s perceptions at all, and so the study has little bearing on whether the concept itself is outdated. Moreover, I wonder about whether this heuristic is really the one that is causing this; there have to be other heuristics about race about Asian-Americans that are more relevant for making inaccurate predictions about Asian-Americans.

    Like

    Do not agree

    November 15, 2014 at 5:06 pm

  24. Do not agree: I’m confused by what you mean by a separate white privilege scale. Regarding income itself, I don’t think an income measure is a proxy for a belief-in-privilege measure. When you say ” a good measure of white privilege” do you mean belief in privilege or just privilege?

    If people had truly interpreted the income question as individual income, it’s puzzling that they were so off the mark with regard to median US income, which is approximately $26,000. It was estimated as approximately $45,000.

    If the results were biased by the income and education of the respondent, I think we would have some significant coefficients (for income and education) in Studies 1 & 2, but we didn’t.

    We’re not unsure about why they ascribe higher poverty rates to whites.

    I agree that “outdated” might not the most suitable label. The argument is that the concept lacks nuisance, and creates both insight and misunderstanding simultaneously. I think it would help to have a more nuanced version of the concept.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 15, 2014 at 5:20 pm

  25. If people ascribe higher poverty levels to whites but also wrongly estimate the income levels of whites in relation to Asian Americans, wouldn’t the data speak more to a discussion of perspectives on Asian American rather than a white privilege heuristic? If the heuristic was true, I would assume people would also underestimate the percentage of whites below the poverty line and largely overestimate Asian American poverty levels. If I’m misinterpreting your data please correct me in why the difference in annual income estimation is indicative of a white privilege heuristic when the the poverty estimation would say it’s probably something else.

    Like

    orgtheory lurker

    November 15, 2014 at 8:47 pm

  26. I realize that my posting comes across as one about what not to do. As a proposal about what to do, I’d suggest focusing on person-by-situation interactions when it comes to privilege. Instead of assigning, say, Peggy McIntosh’s essay on White privilege to undergraduates, one could write an essay on meaningful interaction effects. Alice Eagly’s “A Miscitation Classic” is a good essay about gender interaction effects, but I don’t know of anything on race and ethnicity interactions that explain why it’s simplistic to ascribe privilege to one race.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 15, 2014 at 8:56 pm

  27. orgtheory lurker: You’re not misinterpreting our data. The data on poverty neither seem to support nor detract from our main argument, but we are curious about the poverty findings being more inaccurate for some targets. Do you have any suggested hypotheses that we can test in future studies?

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 15, 2014 at 8:58 pm

  28. While I do not have a suggested hypothesis, I do think formulating a more nuanced concept as well as to conduct person-by-situation type study is going in the right direction for furthering this research topic.

    Like

    orgtheory lurker

    November 15, 2014 at 9:21 pm

  29. Does sociology have some Shadow-like power to cloud men’s minds? People may misperceive Asian income, but is that because they have been influenced by a perhaps outdated sociological concept? Many things can affect perception, and my guess is that what sociologists say is far down the list. Was there any evidence on the causes of their perceptions of income?

    Like

    Jay Livingston

    November 16, 2014 at 11:19 pm

  30. Jay, I don’t think I can determine how much responsibility sociologists bear for the problem I’ve described. Determining blame isn’t really a goal of mine. I’m interested in providing sociologists with information that may have some bearing on how they use the concept of White privilege in the future.

    Our paper is based on correlations, so we can’t make any strong causal claims. It seems plausible that belief in White privilege causes people to rely on the White ceiling heuristic, but we don’t know. What’s important is that the belief and the heuristic covary, which suggests some kind of linkage.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 17, 2014 at 1:54 am

  31. Chirs.

    I must have misunderstood. I thought that you were saying that
    1. Sociologists created the concept of White privilege
    2. This concept has passed its sell-by date, but . . .
    3. . . . non-sociologists (aka “people”) have absorbed that concept, therefore . . .
    4. . . . they misunderestimate Asian income, and
    5. the more they believe in White privilege, the more they misunderestimate Asian income.

    All I was saying was that even if #1, 2, and 4 are true, it’s a pretty big leap to conclude that #3 is also true. So I wondered if there was any clearer evidence that sociology has had such broad impact on the public mind. My own hunch is that whether we call it blame or cause, the influence of sociological teaching (preaching?) is not weighty, and therefore something else is affecting misperceptions of Asian income. (#5 is just confirmation bias, which you would get regardless of the source of a person’s belief in White privilege. I’m also curious as to how you measured the belief in White privilege.)

    Like

    Jay Livingston

    November 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  32. Jay,
    I understand your point. I’m not saying that sociologists created the concept of White privilege, but rather that it’s one of the concepts that sociologists rely on to make sense of the world. I think our paper shows that an over-reliance on the concept can cause problems, so sociologists may want to consider our findings when they use this concept in the future.

    Regarding your question about how people absorbed the concept in the first place, I think there are multiple causes, and it’s plausible that social science classes are one cause. Sociology instructors, in particular, are interested in teaching people about the concept. A rough search shows that the phrase has been used 57 times in “Teaching Sociology.” It appeared in about four articles each year in the 2000s, but only two articles per year in the 2010s, so interest in it might already be dwindling. It’s not unrealistic to assume that some people incorporated the concept into their vocabulary from taking sociology courses, but our questionnaire about belief in white privilege doesn’t actually use the term “White privilege” so it’s impossible for us to assess whether the people in our sample had even heard of the formal term. I think the reason that the average person in our sample rated Whites as slightly privileged is that they have made pertinent observations in their daily life, not that they’ve taken a sociology course. However, this doesn’t mean that sociology’s contribution is necessarily trivial. That’s just a question about which we can speculate. But I don’t have any relevant data.

    Regarding your question about how we measured it, the scale is in Appendix S2.

    I think we can agree to disagree on the logic of the paper. But I’m curious about whether you think this paper has any implications for sociology.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 17, 2014 at 6:50 pm

  33. I think this analysis misses the forest for the trees, in three ways: (1) It privileges respondents giving a technically correct answer as more worthwhile than them understanding patterns of inequality; (2) It misses the big picture story of white-Asian American inequality; (3) it incorrectly attributes enormous power to the white privilege concept. I’ll explain each.

    1. The study assumes that knowing that Asian incomes are higher is important, and notes that people who believe in white privilege less know this more. Okay. But people who disbelieve in WP are also less aware of the overall racial wealth gap, less aware that the Senate is >90% white, less aware of disparities in criminal justice, etc. So I doubt that the tradeoff implicit in the paper’s critique of the WP concept is worth it. Ultimately, a skewed interpretation of big picture inequality is much more worrisome than an incorrect response to one question about one SES indicator about 5% of the population. In fact, if the worst flaw of the WP concept is that it makes people underestimate Asian income, then it’s doing really, really well!

    2. You’re right that on paper, Asian Americans have higher average incomes. But this advantage melts away when you factor in that Asian Americans live in much more expensive areas. Also, don’t many people treat an “average income” question as asking about a group’s average economic situation (e.g. not making sharp distinctions between income, wealth, inheritance, etc.)? Factoring in wealth would likely amp up whites’ lead here. Overall, the view that Asians are not ahead of whites economically is much more reasonable than you give it credit for. (Also, Asian Americans receive lower returns on education, and are much more likely to be racially harassed – begging the question of why a question about Asians’ average income is so important.)

    3. I don’t see evidence that the white privilege idea is the cause of the income misperception. Correlation, causation, etc. If we re-crafted it somehow, abolished it, or even complemented it with my personal favorite, powerblindness (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/soc4.12161/abstract) – would people somehow suddenly simultaneously understand racial hierarchy very well and also know that Asians technically make more money? I’m skeptical.

    .02 …

    Liked by 2 people

    Raj Ghoshal

    November 17, 2014 at 9:43 pm

  34. Raj’s comments are excellent–and I would emphasize that any interpretation of data about views related to Asian Americans needs to be taken with several grains of salt, as non-Asian Americans have typically not devoted very many brain cells to considering the fact that Asian Americans even exist in the first place. Indeed, it seems to me that this entire argument rests on the assumption that Asian Americans are better off than they, in actuality, are. You might want to read the burgeoning literature on what has come to be known as the “bamboo ceiling,” a literature which indeed suggests that Whites experience considerable privilege in the employment market relative to Asians.

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    Mikaila

    November 17, 2014 at 10:33 pm

  35. Chris, if you’re interested in how sociologists use a term, why study laypeople? If you’re interested in how laypeople misuse a term, why claim that term is outdated/lacks nuance? There are lots of terms that have precise academic definitions (like white privilege, or free market for my personal favorite) that are used highly inaccurately by laypeople. Should we ban economics from teaching about capitalism when the concept is so poorly used outside of the academy (actually…maybe that would be a good idea :)

    Your findings are interesting, but your interpretation opens up so many holes and is unduly hostile, imo, to a concept that has been extremely useful in bringing the position of whiteness into the conversation of race and racism in society (even as I think it’s a simplistic concept, it’s really a good starting point for people to engage with these questions).

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    rk

    November 17, 2014 at 11:10 pm

  36. Raj, you seem like the kind of person who is motivated to disbelieve my findings, and in fact you sound like one of our reviewers. I don’t think there are any findings that will make you change your mind on this topic. Incidentally, of the three major dimensions of SES–income, education, and wealth–Asians surpass whites on two. (Also see my comment on Sakamoto below.)

    Mikaila, I’m familiar with the term “bamboo ceiling.” As I’ve already noted in the paper, the point is not to show that any group experiences no discrimination.

    The reason that non-Asian-Americans in sociology haven’t received more attention is an interesting one. I think Sakamoto’s recent papers on Asian Americans address this topic quite well. Deflem’s critique of public sociology is also relevant–the activist strain within sociology has sacralized the cause of ending racial inequality which becomes problematic if one acknowledges that no clear racial hierarchy exists.

    rk, I’m not interested in how sociologists use a term. I’m interested in how belief in White privilege is linked to at least a few inaccurate beliefs. As I noted in my post, I do think White privilege is a good concept, but it was better suited to an earlier era. It’s obviously still important to talk about the privileges associated with being in a numerical majority in general, and the privileges associated with being white in the US. However, the concept of White privilege seems too simplistic to me. Yet whether the concept of WP is overly simplistic is a question of personal judgment so I can certainly see how my findings might not be convincing to some people, and I certainly don’t anticipate that everyone will consider these findings important.

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    chrismartin76

    November 18, 2014 at 3:06 am

  37. These somewhat interesting and somewhat bizarre responses suggest the paper’s authors (specifically, Martin) are conflating “white privilege” *as an empirical social reality* with white privilege *as a conceptual tool to understand the many–though not deterministic–taken-for-granted privileges bestowed on people phenotypically associated with “white.”* Only if we consider the belief in “white privilege” to be a belief in an empirical reality–that it specifically means a belief in whites as having more income, more education, more wealth, etc–are these findings notable. And only then would the implications that “white privilege” is “better suited for an earlier era” be defensible.

    But to test whether “white privilege” is still useful as a conceptual tool, one would want to know whether whites are given the benefit of the doubt in a number of social situations–say, when being approached by police–and if other groups do not receive that same benefit of the doubt. That understanding of “white privilege” (call it the Tim Wise version, which I suspect is taught in most college classrooms) is entirely consistent with your analysis.

    So it is not that your critics are “motivated to disbelieve [your] findings”, but that, as I noted previously, you are pushing a provocative conclusion based on what seems to be a misinterpretation of 1) the concept; and 2) the results of your study.

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    J

    November 18, 2014 at 2:30 pm

  38. “Our questionnaire about belief in white privilege doesn’t actually use the term “White privilege” so it’s impossible for us to assess whether the people in our sample had even heard of the term”

    This is truly a strange study design, then, for making conclusions about the concept of white privilege …

    Like

    J.B.

    November 18, 2014 at 10:02 pm

  39. J: I’m not conflating the two. The study is about the concept and not the empirical social reality. However, one reason we might want to retire the concept is that the empirical reality has changed. Concepts are always oversimplifications, so the fact that the concept doesn’t perfectly match reality isn’t noteworthy. Any concept will mislead people in minor ways. The point of the study is that the concept might be misleading people in non-trivial ways.

    Incidentally, the police show (slightly) more deference to Asians than Whites. See “The World Is Not Black and White: Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot in a Multiethnic Context” by Sadler and colleagues. I think the stereotyping literature explains these police effects quite well. On the other hand, the White Privilege literature would mis-predict that the police show more deference to Whites than Asians.

    Essentially, I think it’s possible to describe the privileges that are conferred on whites in a way that doesn’t mislead one’s audience into thinking there’s a rigid racial hierarchy. I don’t think sociologists are currently doing that.

    Also, if you haven’t read the paper, the paragraph beginning “The adoption of a hierarchical racial paradigm may seem intuitive…” illustrates some other things that are likely to be mis-predicted by people who adopt the White privilege paradigm.

    J.B.: Did you look at the scale we used?

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    chrismartin76

    November 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

  40. You keep saying that the empirical reality has changed. However, I don’t know of any serious sociologist of racial inequality who actually thinks that White privilege has diminished in the generation since the concept became part of our conceptual toolbox. Have people of color been more able, on an individual basis, to climb the social and economic ladder and reach positions of relative privilege? Yes, absolutely. But the structural and systemic patterns of White privilege remain the same. Your continual attempts to argue that perhaps Asians are privileged in some ways do not serve to diminish the incredible social power that Whiteness continues to wield. No serious scholar of privilege argues that Whiteness trumps everything else always, or that there is a rigid racial hierarchy from which reality never deviates, and the degree to which you make the idea of White privilege into a sad reflection of a straw man in your analysis is part of why it is so hard for so many of us commenters to take your arguments seriously. If you want to convince anyone that there is a problem with the concept of White privilege, you need to begin from solid understanding of how we sociologists actually use the concept, and I do not see such an understanding displayed anywhere in either your paper or your discussion here on this blog.

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    Mikaila

    November 19, 2014 at 1:18 am

  41. I think, in the end, the criticisms of this study can be boiled down to a few different points:
    A) The concept of white privilege here has been misconstrued as an economic construct, instead of thinking of it as something closer to a Weberian-social-honor type of construct, which is how academics tend to use it.
    B) Participants are actually correct–in the broad sense–if their answers are meant to reflect that whites are better off than Asian-Americans. Thus, the heuristic is actually, in the big picture, correct.
    C) The relationship between the “white privilege” heuristic and errors is tenuous at best, since there are no competing heuristics tested (and even then, it seems like it’s quite accurate in other ways).
    D) A more specific version of C: Since the only thing that seems to be out of place on both economic measures is Asian-Americans (an inaccurate prediction about Asian-American household income where all else were accurate; an accurate prediction about Asian-American poverty where all else in accurate) understanding this as somehow related to “white privilege” is much less plausible than a heuristic people use to judge Asian-Americans.
    E) Even if people make an inaccurate judgment about Asian-American income, it is probably still very accurate in other areas.
    F) None of this has any bearing on whether the construct “white privilege” is actually accurate.
    It strikes me that A) and F) are problematic mostly because of how the study is framed (e.g., whether “white privilege” works as a construct; it seems that is a poor approach). C), D), and E) are problems but could be remedied in future studies. However, B) seems like a pretty serious problem.
    In the interim, remind me never to post any of my potentially controversial studies on a blog that’s read by lots of sociologists. Responding on social media to critiques like these are a no-win situations for the author.

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    Do Not Agree

    November 19, 2014 at 2:33 am

  42. Mikaila,
    It’s not surprising that serious sociologists construe White privilege differently — serious sociologists have conventionally excluded Asian-Americans from their study samples and analyses. To quote Sakamoto, ASR has “apparently never published a paper focusing on the educational attainment or incomes of Asian Americans” (2009). I think Sakamoto makes a pretty good case in a number of his recent papers that the racial-hierarchy paradigm is simplistic, and he explains why sociologists have sidestepped this issue. And I would consider him a serious sociologist.

    Do Not Agree,
    I partially agree with point (A). Academics tend to use WP in a Weberian fashion. If you use the term in strictly that fashion, though, you still come up with the educational findings and the fact that a non-trivial percentage of Asians feel like being Asian is an advantage in some contexts (per the Pew research). I don’t quite understand some of your other points. Could you explain how Ps correct in the broad sense, and what competing heuristics we should have tested?

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 19, 2014 at 2:54 am

  43. The fact that ASR has ignored a topic does not mean that all of Sociology ignores that topic, though I of course agree that the omission of Asian Americans from many analyses is inexcusable. There are a vast array of excellent sociologists who do important work on Asian Americans, many of whom engage seriously with issues of and related to White privilege. You might find the 2009 ARS article by Sakamoto, Goyette, and Kim a worthwhile starting place, and you also might want to consider attending any number of the excellent sessions sponsored by the Section on Asia and Asian America at ASA in the future (such as the one in 2014 on work and inequality).

    Like

    Mikaila

    November 19, 2014 at 3:05 am

  44. Chris, I did look at the scale, but it just confirmed to me that you don’t get the critques laid out by Do Not Agree, Raj, Mikaela, Olderwoman, and others. Your study cherry-picks the one factual question about racial inequality that believers in the white privilege idea might get wrong more than non-believers, disregards dozens of questions they’d get right more, and pretends that you’ve shown that white privilege is a bad concept. Ultimately I echo the prior skepticism, and I think this study mainly just shows the perils of illogical and sloppy research design.

    Like

    J.B.

    November 25, 2014 at 8:12 pm

  45. “The one factual question” was about income, one of the most significant factors in sociology.

    Like

    chrismartin76

    November 25, 2014 at 8:37 pm

  46. I largely agree with the comments already made by others about the limitations of the study. However, I also feel like the recent events in Ferguson merit mention here. In the aftermath of the failure to indict, academics, policy analysts, journalists and the public have tried to make sense of has happened by reference to “white privilege.” The concept has been so useful and so important because it puts a name to a complex and complicated system of oppression. The process of naming a wrong is an important component in addressing that wrong. The term might be ambiguous, it might be fraught, it might be multivalent and its object might well be changing. But given its importance — which is social and political in nature, not only theoretical — it deserves to be tackled with more nuance than it is given by the title of this blog post. Of course, I know the title is meant to be provocative, but I do think its worth remembering that the terms we use in social science — that we create or that we refute — exist and work outside of the academy as well.

    Like

    KC

    November 26, 2014 at 2:57 am


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