(CN) — The scenario seems simple enough: a bus passenger is short on the fare and the bus driver has the opportunity to give them a free ride.
On its face, the decision is made within a window of a few seconds, but researchers in a study published Wednesday say bus drivers were twice as likely to give white riders a free ride over Black passengers who were in the same situation, illustrating a white privilege afforded to lighter-skinned passengers.
The study’s findings are based on over 1,500 riders, paid test customers who attempted to get a free ride from bus drivers in Queensland, Australia.
Each rider tried to use a bus card with no money.
Despite official policies by bus companies requiring payment from all riders, drivers gave free rides to two-thirds of the observed test riders according to the study published in The Economic Journal.
Broken down, casually dressed white testers rode free over casually dressed Black testers, 72% vs. 36% of the time. Indian testers got free rides 51% of the time versus Asian testers, who were treated similarly to white testers and got a free ride 73% of the time.
“Even though no money exchanges hands, there is still the possibility of bus drivers using racial appearance to make inferences about expected profitability,” the study authors wrote. “The driver may believe that some customer groups will pay the full fare if he or she insists, and therefore could make a calculation of this happening based on the customer’s skin color.”
Bus drivers surveyed said they were aware of customers’ honesty, worthiness and “propensity to cause trouble,” according to researchers.
The rate at which white customers are more likely to be accepted than Black customers is greater than the “white privilege documented in other markets and public services where disparate treatment is already illegal,” according to the study authors.
“Our observed racial gap is also notably wider than the 16% advantage that white citizens realize over Blacks in less regulated parts of the modern economy where, for example, smaller landlords such as Airbnb hosts are unlikely to be reached by anti-discrimination laws,” the study states.
Other variables against Black riders still were present even when considering a bus driver’s age, gender and race and there was no evidence of own-group bias, meaning bus drivers were just as likely to give a free ride to customers from other races as they were to customers of their own race.
“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,” study author and assistant professor Redzo Mujcic from the University of Warwick said in a statement.
In an email, Mujcic said it would be important to carry out a similar study in another country, like the United States.
“We seem to find that perceived trust or honesty plays a strong role in the observed decisions; so that the studied decision makers (bus drivers) tend to view minority customers as being less honest compared to majority whites,” says Mujcic. “I would not be surprised if similar findings on white privilege (or racial gaps) were found in other countries.”
An important takeaway from the study is while people from a lower socioeconomic background might less likely to be offered free services, it’s a symptom of a much larger problem.
“Such a disadvantage or inequality can have large economic and psychological costs to minorities, which are usually ignored. However, improving one’s socio-economic appearance (such as dressing up in business attire) does lead to better outcomes for minorities,” Mujcic said. “Again, proving that discrimination hurts minorities and that such inequalities need to be eliminated by policy makers. Such privileges are hard to remove.”