Prejudice? Perish the Thought

  • In a week full of alarming stories about racial prejudice, the most unsettling was not about the sickening details of how James Byrd Jr. was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death--a crime that last week led a jury in Jasper, Texas, to impose the death penalty on one of his killers. Nor was the worst situation the continuing fury over the fatal police shooting in New York City of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo or the equally infuriating police shooting of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller last December in Riverside, Calif.

    The worst wasn't even the revolting tale of the "Greaseman," a white disk jockey in Washington who was fired for appending a vile quip to a portion of a song by multiple Grammy Award-winning hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill: "No wonder people drag them behind trucks."

    Disturbing as those stories were, their significance pales in comparison to a far less sensational piece published in the New England Journal of Medicine. A carefully conducted study found that doctors were 40% less likely to order sophisticated cardiac tests for women and blacks who complained about chest pain than for men and whites with identical symptoms. After subjecting the data to statistical tests to assure its reliability, the study's authors concluded that the disparity in what are literally life-and-death decisions about medical care was most likely due to unconscious biases about gender and race. As U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, who happens to be an African American, told the Washington Post, "Blacks are 40% more likely [than whites] to die from heart disease, and this could be one factor."

    The story is not dismaying because it suggests that white physicians are raving bigots who haven't progressed since the days when doctors routinely doubled or tripled the strength of X rays administered to blacks because they supposedly had thicker skin than Caucasians. To the contrary, what this study shows is the extent to which subconscious racist attitudes still afflict even highly educated, humane white people who sincerely believe they do not have a prejudiced bone in their body. In what might be called the Alfred E. Neuman syndrome--after the Mad magazine character whose doofus slogan was "What--me worry?"--people in this group tend to react with shocked innocence when minorities complain about the persistence of unfair treatment. "What--me racist?" they seem to say. "Perish the thought."

    This widespread denial of the persistence of prejudice is, I think, one of the main reasons why race relations have become so fractious in the three decades since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to the collapse of the biracial coalition that produced the civil rights gains of the 1960s. It is, in some ways, more difficult to root out than the blatant hatred that led to James Byrd's murder because those who suffer from it are not even aware of their affliction. It makes it more difficult for people of all races to build on past victories in the struggle for equality because we have to keep fighting the same debilitating battles over and over. Every time an outrage like the Diallo shooting occurs, many whites treat it like a tragic exception in an otherwise fair and just system, rather than as a symptom of chronic racial injustice. Raise a fuss about continuing racism and you're accused of exaggerating or imagining things.

    Case in point: the silence that has greeted the well-documented reports of human-rights abuses in the U.S. that Amnesty International USA has been issuing since last fall. The latest installment--a horrifying account of the treatment of female prisoners--is due this week. According to AIUSA, such barbaric practices as shackling female prisoners even while they are giving birth, along with rape and other sexual assaults by both guards and male inmates, have become commonplace as the female prison population has nearly tripled since 1985, to 138,000. But there has been only sporadic press coverage of the issue and next to no public outcry. "The victims of these offenses are female and usually nonwhite and poor," laments William Shulz, executive director of AIUSA. "In this country, that makes them invisible."

    You'd think those Congressmen who accused Bill Clinton of violating Paula Jones' civil rights would want to leap on this issue. But you'd be wrong. The AIUSA report is more likely to be dismissed as a slanderous liberal assault on the criminal-justice system than as a wake-up call for reform. Like Alfred E. Neuman, its detractors will look deeply into their own heart, pronounce themselves innocent and bury their head in the sand.