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The science of white privilege: Emails from ‘black’ names are more likely ignored by public officials

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While equal treatment despite race is a “central tenet of US law,” English researchers have found that it’s not put into practice.

Americans with “black-sounding” names are less likely to receive information when requested from local public services like sheriff’s offices, libraries and school districts and they are less likely to be treated cordially when they do, according to a study by the University of Southampton and the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany.

“Local services constitute the majority of interactions between government institutions and citizens and perform central functions, for instance in education,” writes Dr Corrado Giulietti of the IZA. “The discriminatory attitude that our study uncovers could be one of the factors behind the disadvantaged position of black people in American society and could be a major obstacle towards addressing racial inequality.”

The researchers used a well-established method known as a correspondence study in which they chose four names — two that, based on previous research, distinctly sounded like they belonged to white people and two that sounded like they belonged to black people.

They sent identical emails seeking basic access information, like what time offices open and documents needed to enroll in school.

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Emails sent by white-sounding names received responses 72 percent of the time, while those sent by black-sounding names got responses 68 percent of the time, a 4-point difference, the researchers report.

In the responses, there was a difference in tone as well. While all four names identified themselves as real estate agents, the white-sounding ones were more likely to be addressed with a polite salutation.

The difference was the most marked with sheriff’s offices, with a 7 percent gap, and least noticeable with county clerks and job centers.

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Researchers pointed out that discrimination was just as likely to occur in all regions of the U.S., and is not concentrated in places with known histories of things like Jim Crow laws. However, discrimination was more likely in rural areas than urban ones. White employees were more likely to ignore emails from senders with black-sounding names than black employees.

“When trying to identify the race of the respondent, we find suggestive evidence that black respondents are less likely to ignore emails from black senders than white respondents,” wrote Dr Michael Vlassopoulos of Southampton. “This suggests that increasing diversity among the public sector workforce, particularly in the services where we detect higher discriminatory attitudes, could be an effective way of addressing discrimination.”


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