One of the most frequent responses you see to any accusation of racism or prejudice addressed to a member of majority by a member of a minority is the proverbial “Yes, but … I’m not like that.” Indeed, among white liberals this is the standard response to any charge that they may carry around a bag of prejudices and racist beliefs with respect to people of color or the LGBT community. Unfortunately, reality teaches us that no matter how often we (i.e., white people in general) claim a pure heart when it comes to issues of race, the ugly truth is that racial attitudes and stereotypes are often found even among the “best people.”

The proof as the say, is in the pudding:

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions affiliated with Harvard University provides empirical evidence for the first time that when it comes to heart disease, bias is the central problem — bias so deeply internalized that people are sincerely unaware that they hold it.

Physicians who were more racially biased were less likely to prescribe aggressive heart-attack treatment for black patients than for whites. The study was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. […]

… No conscious bias was apparently present — there was no connection between the explicit racial views of physicians and disparities in their diagnoses. It was only when researchers studied physicians’ implicit attitudes — by measuring how quickly they made positive or negative mental associations with blacks and whites — that they found a mechanism to explain differences in medical judgment.

“Physicians who had higher biases against blacks were less likely to recommend thrombolysis for blacks,” said Alexander R. Green, the study’s chief investigator and a faculty member at the Disparities Solutions Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

You see, black people aren’t necessarily crazy or paranoid when they accuse liberal whites of prejudice. And the sad fact is that the defensiveness of many whites may simply be the result that they themselves are unaware of the racial attitudes they have imbibed from their upbringing, and from American culture at large, since birth. I’m sure that none of the doctors in this study who were found to hold implicitly racist views towards African Americans thought of themselves as racists. I’m sure they believe they are good, caring, compassionate people who treat all their patients with equal consideration and respect. They all swore an oath, after all. First, do no harm. And yet here they are, prejudicing the outcomes of African Americans with heart disease by treating them differently from white patients. Unconsciously, they allowed the great mass of racist attitudes that society imprints upon all of us to influence their decision making, literally, on matters of life and death.

These physicians thought that they were objective and dispassionate healers. But the truth, as revealed by this study, is that they are not. Just as banks, mortgage companies, realtors and real estate developers have been shown to treat black people differently than whites of similar financial and social status. It doesn’t matter what your profession, or what you believe about your own personal lack of prejudice. The fact is that more than likely you carry around stereotypes in your head that effect how you relate to minorities. And getting defensive about allegations from minority groups that, yes, even good liberal white folks can be biased and bigoted just like their conservative cousins, is not the proper way to establish a dialogue on the issue of race.

All it does is disrespect those members of minority communities who experience the effects of these internalized (and often unrecognized) prejudices, and reinforces their belief that white people are incapable of treating with them as equals. Denial may feel righteous and good (How dare they call me a bigot!?), but it is, in truth, a pathological reaction. Furthermore, it discourages those who publicly speak out about the injustice they face and fosters anger, bitterness and resentment.

I recognize that for many “well meaning” whites, it can be extremely difficult to accept that their behavior may be influenced by racial stereotypes of which they are unaware (or of which they choose to be unaware). It can also make it difficult to recognize prejudice in others. However, in my own personal life, I have often been faced with evidence that I do indeed carry around a hoard of racial stereotypes. My wife, a Japanese American, is constantly explaining to me that attitudes or beliefs I took to be unbiased, and behaviors by others which I saw as harmless and lacking in prejudice, are in truth insulting, demeaning and damaging to non-white people. You could say that our marriage has been a 21 year long effort to re-educate me on matters of racism and prejudice. And it’s still a work in progress!

The first step to any resolution of a problem is the acknowledgment that a problem exists. White liberals/progressives need to put aside their defensiveness and feelings of righteous indignation, and recognize that we are not the best observers of our own actions, attitudes and beliefs. We also need to put into action the ideal of equality (rather than merely playing lip service to it) by accepting allegations of racism by nonwhite members of the progressive movement at face value. Stop assuming that they are generated by delusions, paranoia or some form of weird “reverse” racism. If someone is your equal, you take what they have to say seriously. What you don’t do is dismiss it out of hand.

Because they aren’t crazy, folks. And “good” white people aren’t always pure of heart. Indeed, quite the contrary, as the Massachusetts General Hospital study demonstrates.

Hat tip to Jack and Jill Politics

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