What a week it’s been! We’re beginning to talk about race again. President Obama gave us his deeply personal statement about what it means to grow up as an African-American. So, wishing more detail, I took out my copy of his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” which I had read several years previously. His origins are so complex and in part painful. It’s a book that bears rereading. And there are copies on our library shelves at call number: B Obama, B. (“B” stands for the biography section.)
And NPR science reporter Shankar Vedantam reported on recent research about racial bias and its effects on folks: “How to Fight Racial Bias when it’s Silent and Subtle.” He described a fascinating experiment. From the transcript of the interview:
David GREENE (Host): So I think when most people think about racism, we think of it as being motivated by hate or animosity. Now, when scientists actually look at racism, is that what researchers find?
Shankar VEDANTAM: I think it’s one model of prejudice, David, and it certainly explains the kind of prejudice we might have seen in America in the 1950s or ’60s. But there’s been a lot of research in the last 10 or 20 years, which really suggests that that might not be the main way prejudice actually takes place today. For one thing, virtually no one today in America admits to being prejudiced. And so you have a paradox: You have racism but not necessarily racist.
GREENE: What is an example of what you just said?
VEDANTAM: So Alexander Green at Massachusetts General Hospital once conducted a study. He had physicians evaluate patients and some of the physicians thought they were evaluating a white patient. And some of them thought they were evaluating a black patient. And what Greene found is that the higher the levels of subtle unconscious stereotypes the physicians held, the more likely they were to not prescribe the black patient with clot-busting drugs for a heart attack.
GREENE: Based on the color of a patient’s skin, they were actually treating patients differently for heart problems.
VEDANTAM: Yeah. But here’s the important thing, David. The physicians didn’t act in ways that were driven by animosity. In fact, when they saw the results, they were horrified. They weren’t trying to treat the black patients badly. What was happening really, someone complains of chest pain and you’re having to judge: Is this person suffering from indigestion or about to have a heart attack? And in that kind of situation – where you’re not completely sure – your biases can help play a very powerful role.” (Copyright © 2013 NPR: Morning Edition: NPR News, July 19, 2013.)
Do read the entire interview – Vedantam describes suggestions for overcoming stereotypes that might help.
And Vedantam has written much more about our unconscious biases in “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, and Save Our Lives.” It is also on the library shelves right now at call number 154.2 Vedantam.
Thanks to our library of “infinite possibilities,” I’ve discovered another title for my must read list.