Thirty-seven percent of white Americans believe that the police treat black people less fairly; 70 percent of black Americans feel the same way. Similar chasms exist when it comes to perceived discrimination in stores, the courts, and schools, which means that much of the nation's dialogue about racial inequality is defined by the clashing of intractable subjectivities.
Data alone can’t solve deep-seated social ills or mediate heated arguments, but it does have a habit of pulling conversations away from foggy abstraction and ad hominem accusations. That’s why studies showing that employers prefer to hire candidates with caucasian-sounding names over those with black-sounding ones and that the racial composition of juries affects trial outcomes are so powerful. And it’s why “Still Not Allowed on the Bus,” a working paper published late last year by two researchers based in Australia, is a meaningful contribution to a body of evidence indicating that racial discrimination is real, concrete, and pervasive.
Those two researchers are Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, and their paper describes the results of an experiment they arranged in the state of Queensland, Australia. Mujcic and Frijters liken the racial overtones of Queensland's history to those of the American South; it took until 1963 for black Aboriginals to gain the right to vote in Australia. In their experiment, Mujcic and Frijters enlisted 29 volunteers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to board public buses, tell the drivers that they lacked the roughly $3.50 needed to ride, and say that they needed to get to a stop about a mile away. They were then asked to record whether the driver let them stay onboard. (They were also told to note the time of day and the weather conditions, which the researchers figured could engender compassion among the bus drivers.)