Minority health disparities: “social and public health problem”
Tim Wise has no patience with white people who believe they’re not responsible for the “wholesale deaths” of African Americans and Latinos due to health disparities.
“We rationalize that we’re not to blame, but those mortality rates are a social problem,” he said. “Every citizen needs to ask, ‘What role do I play?’”
During his talk at DMU in December, Wise – the author of six books on race-related issues who has lectured on more than 800 college and high school campuses – debunked three “schools of thought” used to explain the disparities. The first one blames minorities’ lifestyles, but Wise said “the data simply do not support it.” He noted, for example, that black women who have never smoked have higher infant mortality rates than white women who smoke every day, and higher rates than foreign-born blacks.
The second rationalization, the “genetic” school of thought, “is even more pernicious, more disgusting and more thoroughly unscientific,” Wise said. The third “liberal theory,” which blames economics and access to health care, has some truth but does not hold up in comparisons of whites and non-whites of equivalent income and education.
Wise said more than 100 studies point to other causes of health disparities among persons of color. They include frequent experiences with racism, the resulting stress on mind and body, and strong evidence that clinicians, especially those who are white, “are less likely to order the same medical procedures, medical interventions and even the same treatment regimens for patients of color as for white patients.” Implicit biases rather than overt bigotry are largely to blame.
The “good news,” Wise said, is that research shows when people are cognizant of their tendency to stereotype others, they can “make a conscious decision to short-circuit that tendency if not in our brains, at least in our actions.” That requires ongoing cultural competency training, self-reflection and an understanding of dominant culture norms that perpetuate stereotypes.
“Unless that’s part of our training, we’re not going to be culturally competent in the way that really counts,” Wise said.