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Why Your Race Matters on Ebay

A new study shows that if you're black and selling things on eBay, you should probably have your white friend hold the merchandise.


At the advent of the internet, proponents of the new technology cheered that the web's anonymity would foster a world in which differences like gender and race would no longer matter. People of all ethnicities and political perspectives—at least ones who could afford a computer—would be able to mingle online and throw off the prejudices that tainted their real-world lives. But while the internet has indeed connected people from around the world in ways far superior to those of the past, alas, it hasn't yet been able to totally eliminate bigotry from its borders. And we're not just talking about YouTube comments.

In a new study called "Race Effects on Ebay," researchers from Harvard and Yale tested the difference experiences of black and white people selling things on eBay. One might think that, everything else being equal, there wouldn't be a discernible disparity in the online marketplace, where the only thing that should matter is the quality of the goods for sale. One would be wrong.


The researchers auctioned off moderately priced baseball cards, which were photographed held in either a dark black hand or a white hand. Though the cards themselves were the same, cards held in a black hand sold for about 20 percent less than cards held in a white hand. What's more, "the race effect was more pronounced in sales of minority player cards."

The eBay study mimics a similar one from 2010. While that experiment, from the Centre for Economic Policy Research, focused on iPods sold via general online classified ads, the results were sadly the same: Black sellers received fewer responses and fewer cash offers than white sellers, and the cash offers they did receive were significantly lower. Beyond that, buyers corresponding with black sellers "exhibited lower trust," according to the researchers. In other words, they were far less likely to accept delivery by mail (44 percent) and far more likely to object to the idea of making a long-distance payment (56 percent).

The takeaway here is twofold: It's very hard to escape the world's entrenched racism, online or no. And if you're a person of color looking to get the most out of an auction on eBay, you should probably have your white friend hold your merchandise.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user brianc

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