News & Politics

Whites Just Don't Understand the Black Experience

To white Americans, giving up television is a hardship; being black is not. That's the upshot of a series of studies by researchers at The Ohio State University.
This article has also appeared on New America Media.

MANSFIELD, Ohio -- To white Americans, giving up television is a hardship; being black is not. That's the upshot of a series of studies by researchers at The Ohio State University.

As part of the studies, whites of different ages and geographic regions were asked how much they deserved to be paid for living the rest of their lives as an African American.

Respondents generally requested less than $10,000 to become black. However, they said they'd have to be paid $1 million to give up television for the rest of their lives.

"The costs of being black in our society are very well documented," says study co-author Philip Mazzocco. "Blacks have significantly lower income and wealth, higher levels of poverty and even shorter life spans, among many other disparities, compared to whites.

"When whites say they would need $1 million to give up TV, but less than $10,000 to become Black, that suggests they don't really understand the extent to which African Americans, as a group, are disadvantaged," says Mazzocco.

In another scenario, the references "white" and "America" were omitted, and participants were asked to select between being born a minority or majority in a fictional country called, "Atria." They were warned of the disadvantages that the minority group faced -- the same disparities faced by black Americans -- and they said they should be paid an average of $1 million to be born a minority.

"When you take it out of the black-white context, white Americans seem to fully appreciate the costs associated with the kinds of disparities that African Americans actually face in the United States," Mazzocco says.

"Our data suggest that such resistance is not because white Americans are mean and uncaring, morally bankrupt or ethically flawed," adds Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University. "White Americans suffer from a glaring ignorance about what it means to live as a black American."

The study also found that nearly all whites opposed reparations for slavery, saying it was "too long ago" and that the descendants of slavery don't need to be compensated.

However, when researchers ask participants to imagine a situation in which they could be part of a reparation lawsuit that would compensate them $5,000 for an event that occurred 150 years ago to a wealthy ancestor of theirs, 61 percent agreed to be part of the lawsuit.

This is the same percentage of blacks today that support reparations for slave descendants.

"[The] surveys show that 90 to 96 percent of white Americans are against slave descendant reparations. It is nearly impossible to get that many people to agree on anything, so it is an issue that really deserves attention to see why this is," says Mazzocco. "We need to take a heated and emotional issue and look through a scientific lens."

The study, titled "The Cost of Being Black: White Americans' Perceptions and the Question of Reparations," was facilitated by a postdoctoral fellowship to Mazzocco from Ohio State's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The study appears in the fall 2006 issue of Harvard's Du Bois Review, a journal on social science research on race.

Georgia Southern University associate economics professor Gregory J. Brock, one of the study's co-author's, says the idea to do the study came after viewing media coverage of reparations struggles for groups wrongfully interred during wars.