It’s been widely reported that Black and Latino people have borne a heavy burden of COVID-19, with higher rates of illness and death from the virus than other groups.
You would expect such reports to evoke sympathy and corrective action. But a recent study found just the opposite: white people who are most familiar with the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color were least likely to fear the virus or support safety measures such as masking and distancing.
“These findings suggest that publicizing racial health disparities has the potential to create a vicious cycle wherein raising awareness reduces support for the very policies that could protect public health and reduce disparities,” researchers at the University of Georgia wrote in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
The study was based on responses from people who self-identified as white and answered online questionnaires in 2020 for a small fee. Younger and with lower incomes than the median white population, the participants were not a representative sampling.
Two experts not involved with the study had opposite reactions to it, with one calling it “dangerous” and the other deeming it “important.”
But the lead author of the study, Allison L. Skinner-Dorkenoo, said the participants’ responses comport with other research showing people’s tendency to feel more satisfied with their situation if they compare themselves with those who are less well-off, and the common desire to distance oneself from threats.
The solution is not to stop talking about disparities, said Skinner-Dorkenoo, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. Instead people need to find better ways to communicate the information about disparities – not just describing the historical roots of inequities but framing them as clearly unjust.
Dr. Jeroan J. Allison, a health equity researcher who chairs the Population and Quantitative Health Sciences Department at the UMass Chan Medical School, sharply criticized the study for its focus on the opinions of white people, calling that approach “cultural hubris.”
“If you want to improve the health of marginalized populations, why do I need to see the opinion of a selected group of white people?” he said. Researchers would do better to ask the affected communities how best to improve the COVID-19 situation, he said.
Allison called the study “dangerous” for implying that disparity data should be suppressed “because it upsets white people.”
And not all white people react that way, he added, pointing to the skewed sample.
“When I look at health disparities, I’m moved with compassion,” said Allison, who is white and has devoted his career to understanding health disparities and how to eliminate them.
But Steven O. Roberts, a Stanford University assistant professor who studies the psychology of racism, called the report “timely and important.” The attitudes of white people matter, he said, because “the people who are making the decisions happen to be disproportionately white.”
The study, he said, connects to the “broader reality” that people tend to care less about issues that don’t affect them, such as an able-bodied person unconcerned about the challenges of disabled people.
Still, he said, “Racism is at the core of the findings.” But racism is not merely a matter of animosity between groups, he added: “It’s pointing to a broader systemic structure that disadvantages some groups.”
“People shouldn’t stop talking about disparities,” Roberts said. Instead they should point out how disparities affect everyone; the economy, schools, even the spread of the virus are all affected when one community is disadvantaged, he said.
The report outlines two studies conducted in 2020. First, researchers recruited 500 white participants from 48 states through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a program in which people perform online tasks for a fee, in this case $2.50 to answer questions. Participants’ knowledge of racial disparities in COVID-19 was assessed, along with attitudes toward COVID-19 and safety precautions. Fear of COVID-19 and support for safety precautions were lower among those with greater awareness of disparities.
In the first study, those who understood the systemic reasons for the disparities had greater fear of the virus and stronger support for safety precautions.
The second study contradicted that second finding. Researchers recruited a separate online group of 1,500 white people in 50 states. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of three articles about COVID-19. One made no mention of racial disparities. A second described the disparities. A third described the disparities, and explained that they were the result of systemic inequities.
To the researchers’ surprise, those who read the third article had less fear of COVID-19, less empathy for vulnerable people, and less support for safety precautions.
Skinner-Dorkenoo speculated on the reason: Possibly, realizing that longstanding, entrenched problems underlie the disparity may prompt white people to think, “It’s not going to come around to me.”
The solution, she said, may be to present the information in a more “heavy-handed” way, focusing on the injustice.
Correction: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect name for the UMass Chan Medical School.
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.