I have had some frustrating encounters regarding race lately. First of all, there was racist display at a store at the touristy beach near my house. No word back from the newspaper about my letter to the editor. I may just have to write to the Ramada chain, since it is right outside their lobby and many people may associate it with the hotel.
Then, I got into it on a post on Alas, a Blog. It was a great post on many aspects of medical research, birth and race. Two commenters decided to take a whack at criticizing the research by taking random guesses about it without actually, you know, reading it.
A similar thing happened on Our Bodies, Our Blog. A link to an essay lamenting the shameful disparities between women of color and white, non Latino women in our country when it comes to perinatal outcomes prompted a commenter to say “But what about the white women?!” in the form of a weakly attempted criticism of a lack of inclusion of Caucasian women. It was an unfounded criticism of selection bias, and the essay wasn’t a study, it just referred to some epidemiological data. (Although I must say the comment was confusing in general. But, the “what about the white women?” part was crystal clear.)
These are two different types of issues. The first is the kind of situation that Jay Smooth so eloquently talks about here:
Someone, an individual, is doing something racist like putting up that display. This is what most people think of as classic racism. It’s also what many people would think may cause an ugly scene if someone wanted to talk about it. I took a quick photo and scampered out of that store.
However, the second and third example bug me on a different level. OK, maybe RonF on Alas has a history of making similar racism apologist arguments, as a commenter on here suggested. But why did the other commenter claim they were reluctantly jumping in to point out something they just had to correct me on, when they obviously didn’t have any actually knowledge about research or statistical analysis, and the point was just a random guess? Why did the commenter on Our Bodies, Our Blog feel the need to cry wolf about selection bias when the original post was talking about institutional racism and its effect on maternal and neonatal outcomes, not calling her a racist?
I am a pre-doctoral research fellow who researches birth. I am taking a Masters of Public Health class that involves analysis of the flaws of public health research studies with an M.D./Ph.D. who has been a reviewer for the CDC and worked for the government for decades conducting research and making public health decisions based on research. I am not trying to pull rank here. I am just saying it makes me really twitchy when people use baseless random hypothetical criticisms of research to justify denying the effects of racism. One of the most compelling issues for me when it comes to racism is the scary, overwhelming evidence of the pervasive negative health effects of institutional racism. (I could link to endless research here, so let’s just link to this and this. Their bibliographies offer a nice starting point if you’re hungry for more.)
But, the other is just as bad. Denying the very real effects of sometimes very subtle institutional and societal racism is just as bad, if not worse. The first study I link to above has this to say about denying institutional racism (emphasis mine):
Institutional racism occurs when seemingly innocuous policies and practices result in the disproportionate harm to particular race/ethnic groups. Institutional racism doesn’t require intent but is inherent in its outcome.13 Personal or individualized racism refers to personal prejudice resulting from negative attitudes and/or beliefs about a particular racial group’s motivations, abilities and intentions.14 It too does not require intent and as Jones states12 can be an act of either commission or omission. Internalized racism occurs when members of the stigmatized group accept or internalize the negative messages and stereotypes regarding their race/ethnic group that are perpetuated in society.12 This form of racism affects how one perceives himself/herself, including his or her self-worth and influences acceptance/tolerance of racially biased treatment or maltreatment by others.
Racism persists in American society because beliefs and attitudes that are not blatantly racist but result in racist behavior or outcomes are often not perceived to be racist. As Parks states, “racism thrives on denial“.15
People identify with these institutions. I am going to be a white obstetrician. Trust me, I am identifying with the people delivering the health care that is failing these women. It’s OK to have high standards. It’s OK to acknowledge where we are failing. It’s OK to admit that there are groups of people that many of us don’t belong to that have it worse than us in some ways. It is hard to discuss for some people, because they cannot admit that they have privilege. So they will make up imaginary flaws in statistical research to desperately deny there is institutional racism.