Over the past year and a quarter, the epidemic has served as a clear reminder of how unequal America is still. But it was not a “reminder” for everyone. Black Americans and Americans of other races did not have the luxury of forgetting that American society is unequal.
For black Americans, in particular, the statistics surrounding COVID-19 inequality is a numerical stand-in for a much bigger problem that pervades many aspects of life – from being able to get a life-saving vaccine to being at risk. Killed by police.
The reality is that our nation is still ethnically isolated. And it is segregated in a way that limits our opportunities to learn about each other’s life experiences, even if our laws do not formally separate our nation as they once did. This means that some people live in a world where they rarely encounter situations that hurt others every day; Others who can’t avoid the condition too.
You can see this segregation in detail by exploring the ethnic dot map of the University of Virginia, which takes data from the 2010 U.S. Census and from plots where people live across the country. Take, for example, Southeast Michigan, where I lived as a graduate student. You can see the obvious geographical separation between the predominantly black, white, Asian and Hispanic neighborhoods.
This pattern is certainly not unique to Michigan: it is all over the country. And now as a professor, when I travel to other universities to discuss my research on inequality, I often include a map of the place I visit to show visitors how this process manifests in their own city or town.
Why this matter? Where we live affects not only our access to resources, but also the people we meet, communicate and be friends with. And because our neighborhoods are so isolated, so are our social networks – about three-quarters of white Americans have no black friends, according to a 2014 survey by PRRI. The nature of isolation in the United States means that we just end up showing up And learning about our own group experiences makes it difficult to understand the lives of people outside of our own group.
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It explains, in part, why Americans have such a difficult time understanding how unequal our nation is, and moreover, Ethnic The nature of that inequality. For example, if you ask Americans about racial wealth gaps, you will see that they severely underestimate these gaps; According to a 2019 study by a team of psychologists, Americans think that the black-and-white wealth gap is actually 40 to 80 percent smaller.
This information is consistent with the notion that Americans misunderstand the state of the nation’s racial progress – they see far more racial progress than they actually have. Clearly, our nation has made some progress towards racial equality since its inception. But that progress does not deny the huge gap that still exists between ethnic groups.
Such misconceptions are consequential. Failure to understand the nature of racial inequality can make it difficult to find effective solutions to the problems it causes.
We saw this game with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. When the data began to show racial disparities in vaccination rates, Americans blamed the “vaccine hesitation” for the fact that black Americans did not get vaccinated as quickly as white Americans because of the negative attitude or long-standing distrust of black Americans about the vaccine. Tuskegee syphilis study, where researchers denied treatment for syphilis in black men so they could track the normal progression of the disease.
As Dr. Rhea Boyd points out, however, a closer look at the data shows that when black Americans are given the opportunity, they tend to be vaccinated, which means that tackling larger structural problems of access can go a long way in reducing racial inequality. . Ignoring and then blaming marginalized people for their misfortunes is not a new phenomenon. Black Americans were also neglected in the smallpox epidemic of the 1860s.
Over the past year, white Americans have had the opportunity to learn more about the racial dynamics of our country – dynamics that should have been covered in American history classes, but often do not. It was an opportunity to learn more about the underlying situation that is dividing our nation, so that more steps can be taken to unite it.
Some have learned to buy books. But there are questions about whether those lessons will last. Although George Floyd’s police assassination spread widely, many white people took part in worldwide protests, and just over a year later, support for the Black Lives Matter movement had already waned; Some white Americans equate Less Supporters of Black Lives Matter more than before Floyd’s death.
Moreover, some organizations that promised racial equality in the past year have since resorted to behavior that is contrary to what they promised. For example, six months after they said they stood with the black community, Google fired Timnit Gabru, whom they hired to make their artificial intelligence more ethical and inclusive, and she was one of the few black women in her field.
Google, of course, is not alone in its conflict. A recent survey of the diversity of the technology industry found that the number of black workers was on average 20 percent lower than the number of organizations that had expressed solidarity after the assassination of George Floyd. In other words, there are at least some individuals and organizations who say that black life is important, even when their own behavior or organizational culture reinforces racial discrimination.
When I first started studying these issues, I thought we could only “train” the biases that perpetuate racial inequality. I’m not the only one who thought that; Companies spend about $ 8 billion each year trying to do just that in diversity training programs. But it seems to be more challenging than it sounds; Interventions to change the underlying bias, for example, fade quickly – according to one paper, after about 24 hours.
To better understand why this happens and why so many people still misunderstand unequal results, I have reviewed and synthesized various social science research for an academic paper on why Americans misunderstand inequality and what it means to try to solve it. What I’ve found, in short, is that we have biases that lead us to see some things but not others, not exist in the void. They come from the same isolated and ethnic neighborhoods and institutions where we go back to when we finished diversity training. Our environment and institutions strengthen our biases. So if our social structure does not change fundamentally, it is difficult to change the people within them.
Our social structure makes it really difficult to see a larger, unequal picture as individuals and thus to reach a consensus on both the nature of racial inequality and the efforts to address it. As I mentioned earlier, the same group of psychologists actually attempted to correct the misconceptions of white Americans about racial and economic inequality in two recent studies. What they found, ironically, was that reminding white Americans of racial discrimination actually led them to look at their past. More Racially justified than those who have not been reminded; And reminders of long-standing inequality have not changed their misconceptions about the present – despite the researchers’ efforts, participants still believe that our nation has actually made more racial progress than that.
What can we do to close these racial gaps that are well documented, but some Americans do not believe? In some ways, this problem is like climate change. Climate change is a deeply political issue, but its existence does not depend on human belief – there is ample evidence that it is real. The same is true of racial discrimination in America: there is a mountain of documented evidence of its manifestation in education, health, criminal justice, employment, and many other areas. And there are experts who have dedicated their careers to studying how the structure, culture, and politics of American society (again) create inequalities, as well as ways to disrupt those cycles.
Therefore, if we want to disrupt long-standing patterns of racial inequality, the best course of action as a country might be to try to convince people that inequality exists, because it will always be difficult. People see discrimination if it does not harm their own lives.