New study: pointing out racial disparities in COVID-19 makes white people more reckless

In a recent study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, a group of scientists examined the impacts of highlighting the racial disparities of COVID-19, and how such knowledge might affect people who are outside of those disparate racial groups — which is to say, white people. The data was based on a group of 500 English-speaking, White U.S. adults — 58% men, 41% women, and three non-binary participants — with a median income of $40,000 to $49,999.

What they found was, um, pretty depressing:

Those who perceived COVID-19 racial disparities to be greater reported reduced fear of COVID-19, which predicted reduced support for COVID-19 safety precautions.


Reading about the persistent inequalities that produced COVID-19 racial disparities reduced fear of COVID-19, empathy for those vulnerable to COVID-19, and support for safety precautions. 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.

This might not sound particularly surprising some people, but there is a lot to unpack here for better, or for worse). The racial disparities in this country persist far beyond COVID-19, and I would argue that history has shown that those sort of problems don't just go away on their own. If you ignore the racial disparities, they'll continue to exist; but, as this study demonstrates, sometimes talking about them can also make the problem worse.

I don't think the conclusion here ultimately argues in favor of those who say we shouldn't talk about or acknowledge race. But I do think it's a good reminder to be conscious and considerate of how we talk about racial disparities. In an early draft of my recent heat pumps article, I had included a quote from one source who had said something during our interview about the racial disparities present in the impacts of climate change. I thought it was important to include some acknowledgement of the demonstrable fact that environmental racism exists — that a combination of factory construction and red-lining have tended to make climate change and air pollution even worse in and around neighborhoods that are largely comprised of people of color. The way this expert worded their off-the-cuff comment, however, essentially made it sound like there a lot of Black people who live in dirty homes that are falling apart. I certainly don't think this person intended to phrase it that way, or meant to imply anything inherent about Black people. But I am very glad that we caught that phrasing before the article went to publication, and replaced the quote with this:

Leaky homes tend to be older and more reliant on fossil fuels, too; in fact, just one-third of US homes are responsible for nearly 75% of all residential carbon emissions, according to the US Energy Information Administration. These emissions also tend to have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color.

The COVID-19 racial disparities study highlights a similar issue with off-the-cuff language:

In May 2020, Governor Evers cited the 1,200% increase in COVID-19 cases within two weeks in one county. Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Roggensack interjected, arguing that the increase was isolated to the meatpacking plant and that it was not "just regular folks" (Flynn, 2020). Thus, the Chief Justice dismissed the outbreak among meatpacking plant workers (who are predominantly people of color) as irrelevant to the debate. […] Publicizing these racial disparities has the potential to establish cognitive associations between COVID-19 and people of color, which, from a social psychological perspective, could have unintended consequences. 

In other words, the ways we point out racial disparities sometimes contributes to "othering" or victim blaming. Racial disparities do exist, but they're not inherent traits of any one race. The fact that COVID-19 rates are higher among Black people has nothing to do with their Blackness — it's because of healthcare inequities, and red-lining, and racist hiring practices that tend to limit choices for Black Americans, or force them situations such as jobs where they're more likely to be exposed. We need to be mindful about how we address those things. Otherwise, as this study demonstrates, even well-intentioned white people can start feeling more invincible — or, dare, I say, superior — to their neighbors of color. And that's a problem.

Highlighting COVID-19 racial disparities can reduce support for safety precautions among White U.S. residents [Allison L.Skinner-Dorkenoo, Apoorva Sarmal, Kasheena G.Rogbeer, Chloe J. André, Bhumi Patel, Leah Cha / ScienceDirect]

Image: USAID / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)