How white privilege affects everyday transactions

02 September 2020

  • White passengers more likely to get a free ride, research shows
  • More than 1,500 transactions provide new evidence of white privilege
  • Indian and black passengers less likely to get free bus journeys
  • New study by WBS researchers published in The Economic Journal

Bus drivers are twice as likely to let white passengers ride for free compared to black passengers, new research shows.

Drivers allowed white passengers, who did not have the required fare, to ride in 72 per cent of cases. However, black passengers who did not have enough money were granted a free ride just 36 per cent of the time.

Indian passengers were allowed to travel without paying 51 per cent of the time, while Asian riders were treated the same as their white counterparts.

The study, The Colour Of A Free Ride, was led by researchers at Warwick Business School and published in The Economic Journal.

It set out to test what happens when decision-makers have to make unmonitored judgements. Would they voluntarily provide favours to customers and, if so, would they accommodate people from some backgrounds more than others?

Redzo Mujcic, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School and lead author of the study, said: “Our findings show that white privilege extends into marketplace favours, or private accommodations, that are often hidden and unregulated.

“The level of white privilege found is markedly greater than previously documented in other markets and public services, such as employment and housing, where discrimination is already illegal.”

Police officers must issue tickets to drivers exceeding the speed limit and grocery store workers are not allowed to hand out goods free of charge. Similarly, bus drivers require all passengers to have valid tickets before being allowed onto the bus.

The study tested whether workers would voluntarily provide discretionary favours when they were not being monitored and, if so, whether all people would be treated equally.

Researchers hired test customers, who were randomly assigned to board buses in Queensland, Australia, and present a travel card with no money on it, then ask the driver if they could have a free ride to a specified stop. The study looked at 1,552 transactions.

While the bus company’s official rules mostly discourage employees from waiving the fare, close to two-thirds of observed drivers granted free rides, predominantly to lighter-skinned people.

The researchers found no evidence of drivers favouring their own ethnic or racial group. The bias against black citizens existed regardless of the driver’s own age, gender, and race.

A key feature in the field experiment is that the bus drivers had only a few seconds to decide regarding a person standing in front of them. Here they appeared to use a customer’s skin colour as a proxy for other unobservable group characteristics.

This white privilege was reduced, but still present, when test customers wore business attire or dressed in army uniforms.

Dr Mujcic said: “As a society, we need to think about ways to eliminate such bias in daily interactions, especially given the large economic and social costs that accrue to discriminated minorities. For example, white citizens can simply refuse any such gifts in future transactions.”

 

Redzo Mujcic is Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. He teachers Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Executive MBA and The Economics of Well-Being on the Distance Learning MBA.

Follow Redzo Mujcic on Twitter @RedzoMujcic.

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