'Vicious cycle': Teaching white people about COVID inequalities can often backfire, new research finds

  • In Health
  • 2022-04-06 21:40:28Z

Learning about how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color may lead to an unintended and unsettling consequence for many white people: prompting them to care less about the pandemic, according to a University of Georgia study published last week.

The study, which found white people who read about these disparities showed reduced fear of COVID-19 and less empathy for those most vulnerable to the virus, builds on recent research yielding similar results and is another example of studies shedding light on how entrenched racial biases are in society, lead author Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo said.

The results even confounded researchers' attempts at eliciting empathy from white participants, prompting new speculation about the best ways to present information on the pandemic's racial disparities.

At the start of the pandemic, Skinner-Dorkenoo, assistant psychology professor at the University of Georgia, found it counterintuitive that learning about racial inequities could reduce a person's empathy and concern. But she grew to expect the result, based on two principles.

First, people tend to have less empathy for groups they don't belong to, she said. Additionally, white people may also be less concerned about issues that disproportionately impact people of color because, in a society built on systemic racism, this is how they expect things to be, she said.

"From its founding, we had a country that was unequal in terms of race and white people have always had the upper hand in essentially every way, including health," she said. "That combined with the fact that people expect that things will sort of continue the way they always have, may be contributing."

Skinner-Dorkenoo called the results disheartening and distressing, adding she's unsure of how to discuss them with her students and worried about how "unimaginably demoralizing" it may be for some students of color.

"Although I predicted this would happen, it's still difficult to see the data," she said.

As a result, Skinner-Dorkenoo said it's important to continue sharing critical information about how COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed communities of color, but people should provide additional context around the data. And researchers should further explore what specific methods may be most effective.

Tyajiah Ruff gets her COVID-19 booster shot Saturday morning, Feb.
Tyajiah Ruff gets her COVID-19 booster shot Saturday morning, Feb.  

Suspicion of 'vicious cycle' prompted study

Early in the pandemic, Skinner-Dorkenoo shared news articles about COVID-19 racial disparities in death rates as a result of systemic racism. But a friend reached out, worried that such efforts could backfire and harm communities of color by making white people less concerned about the pandemic.

These concerns became the driving force behind the study, which included a sample of 1,500 white Americans. The first part of the study tested the association between awareness of racial disparities and fear of COVID-19, finding that the more aware participants were of these disparities, the less fearful they were of the virus and the less supportive they were of COVID-19 precautions.

In the second part of the study, researchers presented news stories that either did or didn't include data on COVID-19 and race. They found that reading about disparities reduced fear of COVID-19, empathy for those most vulnerable to the virus, and support for pandemic precautions.

As a result, publicizing racial disparities may create a "vicious cycle" among white people. It can paradoxically perpetuate the same inequities by reducing support for policies that could counter them, Skinner-Dorkenoo said.

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Findings likely unsurprising to many Black Americans

The study is far from the first to document a link between knowledge of injustice and apathy toward that injustice.

LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, who was not involved with the University of Georgia study, said the findings also align with criminal justice research that has shown informing white Americans of racial disparities in the legal system can reduce support for reforms. Stephens-Dougan said such findings rarely come as a shock to most Black Americans.

"For a lot of Black people, these results essentially affirm what they suspected about where they stand in the racial hierarchy and how that affects public health responses," she said.

LaFleur said her own research, including a study sampling 600 white Americans that has not yet been published, also supports the new study's findings. White respondents who showed racial biases also had more negative attitudes toward pandemic precautions after reading data on racial disparities, she said.

Other studies, including one published in the journal Social Science & Medicine last year, yielded similar results. But it also tested for anti-Black bias - something the new University of Georgia study does not do.

Choosing to conduct the study generalized to all white people has its drawbacks, said Elizabeth Tung, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. Tung wishes the new study was stratified by political affiliation and is unsure if the results can adequately represent all white people.

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Efforts at prompting empathy in white participants failed

As part of the study, researchers added a condition where they provided context that framed racial disparities as part of a long history of systemic racism, hoping the added information would lead to different results. But it didn't.

"That was the only thing that surprised me in our study, that the context we added didn't help," Skinner-Dorkenoo said. "Perhaps saying these disparities are tied to these things that have been going on for a really long time sort of solidified the idea that, for white people, 'It's not my problem.'"

Instead, Skinner-Dorkenoo said she wonders if explicitly labeling the disparities as unjust and emphasizing that "these systems didn't just happen this way but were designed this way" would make the difference.

Stephens-Dougan said much of the early discussion about how Black communities were being impacted by COVID-19 centered around comorbidities with little discussion of the systemic reasons behind them, which may have fueled false ideas that racial disparities are unavoidable or the fault of those facing them.

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As a result, she said "making this distinction between structural racism and individual behavior" may be helpful. More context and efforts to humanize groups that are disparately affected by the pandemic could also help, she said.

"But of course I don't think that Black people should have to be cast as deserving or sympathetic figures for there to be reasonable public health response," she added.

The study results also can't be separated from COVID-19 policy decisions, Skinner-Dorkenoo said.

"Government officials aren't immune to this way of thinking either," she said.

Cary Gross, professor of medicine and public health at Yale School of Medicine, said it's difficult to draw conclusions on how to best discuss disparities because the study only includes white people. He said he also thinks the study should be replicated more before it is used to offer recommendations.

Still, Gross, who was not involved with the study, said the results were concerning and made him think about how "we need to do a better job of messaging, of telling the story about why health inequity is bad for everyone in society."

"The conversation about racial health disparities in America really does require more nuance, more depth of conversation, more talk across political aisles," said Tung, the University of Chicago assistant professor.

Skinner-Dorkenoo also said she hopes the study challenges people to think deeply about how this information is shared and presented.

"But mainly, I hope this helps people recognize the way in which racism is embedded in our society and how it impacts all the decisions we make," she said.

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White people learning about COVID racial divide can backfire: Study


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