Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Joe Feagin and Eileen O’Brien

Wealthy White Men on Race

The quiet and not-so-quiet prejudices and discriminatory practices of wealthy white men have received virtually no academic attention even though their attitudes have the potential to influence many people’s lives. To overcome this deficit, sociologists Joe Feagin and Eileen O’Brien (2003) interviewed about 100 wealthy white male executives, managers, administrators, and professionals about a range of racial issues. Understanding the perceptions of these men is important because many of them have the power to shape policies, laws, and actions involving ethnoracial minorities and majorities.

Because of their socioeconomic status, these men have lived most of their lives in segregated, well-to-do neighborhoods. As children and teenagers, they tended to go to schools that had few, if any, people of color. Only a handful of the interviewees reported long-term friendships with people of other races.

So their first and sometimes most significant encounters with ethnoracial minorities were often with domestic and other service workers, usually female maids or male servants:

Although I don’t remember my first experience of meeting a black person, I would assume it was . . . my grandfather’s chauffeur when I was five years old. So to me, Blacks at that point were people that waited on you.

My very first contact with a black person was with a black maid who essentially raised my sister and [me].

Honestly, the first black person I ever met was probably a household employee at my parents’ house a long time ago. (all quoted in Feagin & O’Brien, 2003, pp. 34–35)

Memories of these initial contacts are usually quite fond. Many men spoke lovingly of household servants because they were people who played an important role in raising them (some respondents even referred to their black maids and nannies as “second mothers”).

However, they also were taught, early on, that the social distance between their families and “the help” had to be maintained. Furthermore, it’s clear that the men didn’t see these individuals as real people with real lives. Most of them were unaware that their maids and chauffeurs had spouses and children of their own or that their jobs made it difficult to sustain those relationships.

Feagin and O’Brien also found that in many ways wealthy white executives are not that different from “ordinary” white Americans when it comes to their stereotypes and prejudices. Some harbor deeply negative attitudes toward Americans of color that seem reminiscent of a bygone age:

Well, let’s look at the statistics. The Negro is about ten percent of the population and eighty percent of the crimes are committed by Negroes, so what does that tell you? . . . What does that tell us? Absolutely, of course, much more crime is committed by them. And anywhere they are, they’re criminals. They’re criminals here, they’re criminals in Africa. (quoted in Feagin & O’Brien, 2003, p. 100)

Furthermore, they often see the advancement of people of color as a threat to the racial privileges they’ve come to take for granted and to their control over major social institutions. But since they are generally highly educated, most of them are well aware that they should not be too obviously negative in expressing their racial attitudes. Hence, some couch their prejudices in sympathetic-sounding language:

There are many, many fine black families around. . . . Unfortunately, a large part of the black population has this family problem. . . . It’s very, very difficult to generalize why some blacks work out fine while others don’t, and the fact that some could work out exactly the same as anyone else leads me to believe that it’s not because of the color; it’s because of the environment they’re brought up in. (quoted in Feagin & O’Brien, 2003, p. 104)

This is a classic example of quiet discrimination. Notice how this individual distances himself from the prejudices of the past while at the same time embracing the reality of racial inequality.

Not all the men interviewed by Feagin and O’Brien expressed prejudice. A minority of them held very positive attitudes about race relations. These individuals often voiced dismay over racial and class inequality and spoke of the need for a significant shift in the balance of economic and political power in the United States. The factor that seemed to separate these men from the others who held more traditional (and negative) attitudes toward race was the nature of the relationships they’d had with people of color. Those who had long-term friendships or extended contact with members of other races showed a willingness to consider dismantling the structures that perpetuate prejudice and racial inequality. Such a finding supports the idea that regular interpersonal interactions that cross ethnoracial boundaries can diminish stereotypes and prejudice.