Alert reader DK tossed a PDF of the following new study over the transom: Erin Cooley, Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, Ryan F. Lei, and William Cipolli, III, “Complex Intersections of Race and Class: Among Social Liberals, Learning About White Privilege Reduces Sympathy, Increases Blame, and Decreases External Attributions for White People Struggling With Poverty, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The abstract:
White privilege lessons are sometimes used to increase awareness of racism. However, little research has investigated the consequences of these lessons. Across 2 studies (N = 1,189), we hypothesized that White privilege lessons may both highlight structural privilege based on race, and simultaneously decrease sympathy for other challenges some White people endure (e.g., poverty)—especially among social liberals who may be particularly receptive to structural explanations of inequality. Indeed, both studies revealed that while social liberals were overall more sympathetic to poor people than social conservatives, reading about White privilege decreased their sympathy for a poor White (vs. Black) person. Moreover, these shifts in sympathy were associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor White person’s plight. We conclude that, among social liberals, White privilege lessons may increase beliefs that poor White people have failed to take advantage of their racial privilege—leading to negative social evaluations.
If you think about this for a moment, you can see implications of “these shifts of sympathy” for a Democrat Party whose elites and apparatchiks were mostly white, likely to have had “lessons” (literally lessons, so the paper is limited in scope) in white privilege, and who are liberals (but — categorizing crudely — social liberals, like Clinton, etc., and not economic liberals, like Sanders or Warren. Because the authors don’t have the 2020 primaries in mind, they don’t hammer that distinction home as much as they might). In this brief post, I’ll first describe Cooley et al.’s paper as best I can — I do think the abstract, above, communicates the bottom line — and then I’ll speculate freely on those implications. I wish I could write a rigorous post, but I feel it’s important to get this paper “out there” in short order.
First, the paper; N = 1,189, so at least it passes our first hurdle. Most of the sociological jargon is above my pay grade, and so all I can do is my best. I’m also limited in the number of words I can quote, so I can’t give much detail. (If any readers want to dig into the methodology, I can email a PDF of the study). From the paper, here are the two studies (citations omitted). In the first study, there are two parts to look for: The “lesson” part, and the “sympathy” part. Here is the lesson part:
After completing the informed consent, participants were told they would complete two (ostensibly) unrelated studies. The first study was described as a brief reading and thought exercise. Participants read the following:
In America, there is a long history of White people having more power than other racial groups (e.g., Black people). Although many people think of racial inequality as decreasing, there are still privileges that are experienced by White Americans that are not true for other racial groups. For example, in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh, PhD, lists different privileges that she experiences as a White person living in America.
Next, participants read four privileges taken from Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) work: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time;” “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented;” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group;” and “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”
Participants then were asked to list two privileges that White people experience in America. After this exercise, participants were directed to what was described as the second study.
(Outis Philalithopoulos discussed McIntosh and her canonical yet slippery knapsack metaphor at NC in 2018.) That was the lesson part. Now comes the sympathy part. Still from the paper:
In the second study, participants learned that the researchers were developing a magazine column that would provide brief glimpses into the lives of regular people living in New York City. Participants learned they would read one randomly selected “snapshot” of a person living in NYC and would be asked to report their reactions to this person. All participants then read the following about a man named Kevin. Critically, participants were randomly assigned to learn that Kevin was either White or Black:
Kevin, a White [Black] American living in New York City, would say his life has been defined by poverty. As a child, Kevin was raised by a single mom who struggled to balance several part-time jobs simply to pay the bills. Most winters, they had no heat; and, it was a daily question whether they would have enough to eat. In late 2016, Kevin began to receive welfare assistance. Since then, he has not applied for any jobs and instead has cycled between jail cells, shelters, emergency rooms and the streets. Although Kevin would like to be financially independent, he doesn’t feel he has the skills or ability to obtain a well-paying job.
The second study has the same structure as the first, with an additional control:
[W]e aimed to replicate and extend Study 1 findings. Critically, in Study 2 we added in a control condition in which participants did not read about White privilege. Among those in the White privilege condition, we expected to replicate Study 1 findings. In contrast, in the control condition, we expected social liberals to express more sympathy for a struggling, poor person regardless of race. Such a finding would be consistent with research linking social liberalism to greater motivations for empathy…. Together these results would indicate that backlash toward poor White people in Study 1 are caused by reading about White privilege rather than a general predisposition of socially liberal people to sympathize more with Black versus White people.
(Spoiler: This proved to the case.) Participants were also scaled on the
Voigt-Kampff the author’s 7-point social political ideology scale, so they could be sorted for social liberalism vs. economic liberalism. Skipping methodology entirely — again, above my paygrade, but I did search on the names of the authors to see if they appeared in any tendentious online contexts, and they did not — we arrive at the main conclusions:
Across two highly powered studies, we find that . In particular, social liberals, who tend to explain inequality through systems of oppression… may be particularly receptive to thinking about systematic privileges experienced by White people [while economic liberals are not]… As a result, . However, we should also note that learning about White privilege did not make liberals feel less sympathetic toward poor Whites than conservatives, but rather less sympathetic than they may have otherwise been….
One plausible interpretation of these findings (given that our samples were composed of mostly White people) is that White people, may feel negatively toward poor White people, as opposed to rich White people, because they negatively represent the in-group… Indeed, recent research indicates that poor White people can be ostracized by other White people….
Similarly, the status incongruity hypothesis, contends that people who are counterstereotypical of their race or gender—especially in terms of status expectations—are likely to experience backlash due to system justification motivations…. Thus, it is possible that lessons about White privilege make low status White people seem particularly incongruous with status stereotypes of their race driving the observed backlash toward poor White people. Future research could directly manipulate status to examine whether the current pattern of findings is restricted to low (but not high) status White people.
So, that’s the paper. Now to work through the implications, assuming the paper is correct, immediately repeating the caveat that I’m speculating. First, let me simply and perhaps brutally reframe the terms: For Cooley et al.’s “poor,” I would say “working class,” and for purposes of this post, for Cooley et al.’s “social liberal,” I would say “member of the socially liberal Democrat nomenklatura” (at the high end, an opinion shaper, thought leader, elected, or bundler; at the low end, a canvasser or precinct captain). I’m also going to label the phenomenon discovered by Cooler et al. “social liberal backlash” So a few points.
First, one nice thing about Cooley et al.’s paper is that the idea of social liberal backlash can give an account of material like the following, produced after the Case-Deaton studies and election 2017. “On mocking dying working class white people“:
I’m just going to cut and paste comments from this story at the Huffington Post on white working class people dying of despair. Keep in mind, the suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse is causing deaths at the level of the AIDS epidemic at its height. This sentiment is common, I just picked comments from one thread on one article.
“Sorry, not sorry. These people are not worthy of any sympathy. They have run around for decades bitching about poor minorities not “working hard enough,” or that their situation is “their own fault.” Well guess what? It’s not so great when it’s you now, is it? Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run.”
Not much sympathy there, eh? (It also seems reasonable to assume that Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” in the quote, fits into the social liberal backlash frame.)
However, we recall that Cooley et al.’s results derive not from a simplistic readout of sympathy from race (or class), but from the admixture of a lesson. So we ask ourselves: Have member of the socially liberal Democrat nomenklatura been given lessons in white supremacy? And the answer is yes (as one might expect; the Democrat party base is credentialled professionals, and race is an important topic, so naturally they would take lessons, one professional to another). For example, from Politico:
“Intersectionality feels obvious to younger progressives in the way that LGBTQ rights do,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of [the Clinton-adjacent] Run For Something, which recruited thousands of young progressives to run for local and state office in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
. Indivisible, the largest “resistance” group of the Trump era, recently held its first mandatory virtual training; more than 300 group leaders across the country tuned in. The topic: “Direct Voter Contact through a Racial Equity Lens.”
Before I conclude, I should say that yes, racism is real and evil, and yes, white supremacy is vile and degrading. However, if the hypothesis of social liberal backlash is correct, the lessons for liberal Democrat nomenklatura on those topics may well have put a ceiling on their capability to win votes. (Remember that the country will be majority white until 2044, which is a lot time to wait for Ruy Reixeira’s “coalition of the ascendant” to do its demographic work.) If those well-meaning, well-trained social liberal Indivisible volunteers knock on white working class doors, and in their hearts is the thought that “if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run,” it’s hard to see how their canvassing will be as effective as it might otherwise have been. Social liberal backlash would also give an account of the vehement rejection of the injuries of class, and its trivialization, stigmatization, and individualization as “economic anxiety” by Democrat wonks. Dollying back to the larger conditions of social policy, it’s also possible that social liberal backlash can give an account of the otherwise curious indifference of the Democrat leadership — who employ lesson-having staff, at the very least — to tens of thousands of excess deaths of despair, yearly, in the white working class. And if liberal Democrats don’t — or can’t — think those deaths are an issue, somebody else will. Hopefully not Trump 2.0.
 “Importantly, and consistent with our hypotheses, the results indicate that 1) our reported models do not replicate when we look at economic (rather than social) political ideology as a moderator and 2) our reported models remain un- changed when we control for economic political ideology.”
 No, not “reverse racism.” They write: “Importantly, although our data find that learning about White privilege can decrease social liberals’ sympathy for a White person suffering from poverty, we think it is important to emphasize that these data cannot, and do not, speak to perceived racism toward White people (i.e., reverse racism claims). ”
 Gotta have that “future research” line!
 “Social justice liberal backlash” would be way too charged for an already charged discussion; and in any case I would bet that “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” Democrats are part of the backlash.
 Yes, “naturally” is doing a lot of work, there. The Democrat Party is embedded in (or includes, depending on how you define a political party (which nobody has really been able to do))) a dense network of NGOs, sometimes called the non-profit industrial complex (see also), many of whom provide training in topics such as white supremacy. That’s one way the Democrats decapitate social movements. This footnote should really be a whole post, but a footnote will have to do for now.
 If the social liberal backlash hypothesis is true, redesign the curriculum.