Behind the mask: How racism shaped attitudes on the pandemic
Disasters reveal the character of a society. In such moments there are heroes driven to do what is right, who exemplify the best of what humankind can be. Those stories are emphasized, elevated and highlighted because they are aspirational and they give us hope. But in fact, it is the darkness, the failures and the bad behavior that are the most revealing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 6 million people around the world. Public health experts predict that at least a million Americans will be killed by the disease, and the ripple effects have touched virtually everyone. An unknown number of people, probably many millions, will suffer from “long COVID” and require health care decades into the future.
The pandemic has also empowered plutocrats and powerful corporations to further enrich themselves, literally at the expense of the public. For that class, every crisis is an opportunity. Social inequality and injustice have been dramatically worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. What could have been an opportunity to reinvigorate social democracy in the U.S. and around the world has instead become an object lesson in the failures of capitalism.
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Fascists, authoritarians and others who are enemies of human progress and freedom have used the misery caused by the pandemic to fuel their movement, targeting political opponents and marginalized groups as the “enemy of the people” and inflaming anxieties about a society in the midst of enormous change.
The human, financial and social destruction and disruption created by the pandemic have made Americans — and people around the world — feel increasingly lonely, isolated and alienated. These are emotions that fuel the global right and other extremist movements in a feedback doom-loop that is undermining the liberal-democratic project, along with any shared belief in or commitment to human progress and a better tomorrow.
As always, the global color line runs through the pandemic and the larger political, social and economic disasters it has wrought. And once again, as is almost universally true in America (and throughout the Western world) racism and white supremacy hurt white people too. That may seem counterintuitive to some people, but it’s clearly true.
I recently discussed these issues, and many more, with Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on social biases (including implicit racial bias) and how such beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors are established, taught and reinforced across everyday life and society.
She is the principal author (along with co-authors Apoorva Sarmal, Kasheena G. Rogbeer, Chloe J. André, Bhumi Patel and Leah Cha) of a new paper, “Highlighting COVID-19 racial disparities can reduce support for safety precautions among white U.S. residents,” published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
Skinner-Dorkenoo’s research examines the relationship between racial attitudes, knowledge about the pandemic and the understanding of systemic racism and bias in American society. Her findings present a powerful and damning example of how white racism and white supremacy have enabled the spread of the COVID pandemic through widespread indifference among white people about the health and life outcomes of Black and brown Americans.
In this conversation, Skinner-Dorkenoo explains how white racial animus and “conservative” ideology correlated with a refusal to wear masks to stop the spread of the pandemic. As she explained to NBC News in a recent interview, many white people stopped caring about the pandemic because they (incorrectly) believed that it was “not a white people problem.” In her study, white people were even less likely to care about the pandemic, or to support efforts to mitigate its spread, when they learned that the disease disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities.
Skinner-Dorkenoo explains that white people in America have a lower sense of “linked fate” than Black Americans, which negatively impacts support for public health measures and an overall sense of care and concern for others.
Throughout this conversation, Skinner-Dorkenoo argues that racism and other forms of anti-Black and anti-brown sentiment have implications across a range of public policy areas, including health outcomes, a dynamic that has effectively turbocharged the spread of the pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Help us understand how to contextualize your new research, relative to what we already know about white racial resentment and racism more generally?
Our findings highlight how race has been and continues to be central to the organization of American society. In the United States, white people have always had the most power and privilege and societal structures have been set up in ways that perpetuate that fact. These structures are important because living in a society that is structured to favor a certain group — in this case, white people — can lead to expectations about how society should be.
We come to expect that societal outcomes should favor white people. So knowing that COVID disproportionately impacts people of color means it is consistent with the status quo.
In other words, we can come to expect that societal outcomes should favor white people. In practice, this means that people, especially those who are advantaged, will tend to favor the status quo and attempt to maintain it. When we think about this in terms of race, it means that people who grew up and were socialized in the U.S., especially if they are white, will be less concerned about social issues that appear to be consistent with the status quo of advantaging white people. In the end, knowing that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color means it is consistent with broader societal expectations of inequality.
Social scientists and other researchers have documented that Black Americans have a higher sense of what is called “linked fate” than do white Americans. Can you explain that? What do we know about this from your research?
From a “linked fate” perspective, I would expect white people to generally be less concerned about COVID-19 than other racial groups. This is because, as you mention, white people tend to have a weaker sense of linked fate than members of other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
For example, if I, as a white person, know that a white person died of an illness or was killed by police, that does not necessarily make me feel like those things will happen to me. But we know that for other racial and ethnic groups there is a much stronger sense of linked fate, where what happens to other people in your group has implications for what will happen to you. From that perspective we would even expect white people in the U.S. to be less concerned about COVID cases among white people, relative to how Black Americans might feel about COVID cases among Black people.
Your research speaks to the extreme levels of racial segregation in this country and what we already know about white Americans as a group and their resulting lack of warmth, closeness and empathy toward Black and brown people.
The segregation of our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and friendship networks means that lots of white people in the U.S. have very little contact with people of color. Because of this, we could anticipate less concern about direct exposure to COVID, but also less emotional impact as well. If COVID hospitalizations and deaths are just statistics we hear about on the news, it seems much less threatening than if it is something that directly impacts people in our social network. There was a poll a few months into the pandemic which showed that more than 30% of Black Americans knew someone who had died of COVID. In comparison, fewer than 10% of white Americans knew someone who had died.
We have long known that social-dominance behavior, racial authoritarianism, hostility to “political correctness” and white racism overlap with party identification and political orientation. White masculinity and white identity-formation are also central here, in terms of political values and behavior. How does your research speak to these dynamics?
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Donald Trump seemed to present safety precautions like masks as a sign of weakness. It seems like safety precautions of all kinds have been framed as not masculine, like when conservative media outlets made fun of Barack Obama for wearing a bike helmet. Many of the public health mandates were framed as infringements on “freedom” and thus “anti-American.” In total, expressions of masculinity and patriotism were linked with the anti-mask movement.
Because of all this, we tested whether the patterns we observed in our studies could be explained by the political leanings of the people in our research sample. We did find that people who were more conservative were less fearful of COVID and less supportive of safety precautions. But the effects of awareness of racial disparity were still there. Even when we accounted for the effect of politics, white people who were more aware of COVID disparities were less supportive of safety precautions.
Race and racism are omnipresent social forces across all areas of American society. How do those forces impact mask-wearing or other measures meant to stop the spread of the pandemic?
What we observe in our study impacts many areas of health. For instance, Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women in the U.S. The kind of action needed to address this public health issue is entirely different from COVID-19. But why aren’t we investing more in research and interventions to remedy this major public health issue? If the rates of maternal mortality were as high for white women as they are for Black women, I think we would be working a lot harder as a society to bring those numbers down.
We see similar patterns in other areas of society and public policy as well. For example, a series of studies has showed that when white people are exposed to information about the racial disparities in incarceration in the U.S., they are less supportive of policy reforms to the criminal justice system.
Were you surprised by your findings about white Americans and the backfire effect? That is, how making them aware of racial disparities makes them less supportive of public health measures, rather than more so?
I had hoped that framing racial disparities in terms of broader systemic inequalities would lessen the “backfire effect.” Unfortunately, I was totally wrong. It actually made the levels of concern about COVID even worse.
No. We predicted that the information would lead to this kind of backfiring. In fact, that is why we did the studies — to test if we were right. From a psychological perspective, we saw lots of reasons to expect that if white U.S. residents were more aware of COVID disparities they would be less concerned. From the kinds of expectations we have in an unequal society like ours to evidence that people tend to be less concerned about things that seem farther away, all of that suggested that more awareness of disparities would mean reduced concern and support for safety precautions among white people.
The one thing that did surprise me was that I had anticipated, and hoped, that framing racial disparities in terms of broader systemic inequalities would help lessen this tendency. If we told white people that these disparities could be traced to broader systemic health inequalities, and to variation in terms of who tended to fill essential-worker roles (as opposed to personal negligence), I thought that would prevent the information from backfiring and reducing concerns. Unfortunately, I was totally wrong there. It actually made the levels of concern even worse.
Some white Americans responded differently because of their knowledge of systemic racism and public health disparities. How do you explain that outcome?
Yes, this was actually a hopeful note from our findings. White people who knew about the systemic issues that led to the disparities we observed in COVID, such as disparate access to PPE and testing sites, or that people of color were disproportionately designated as essential workers, were the most concerned about COVID-19 and the most supportive of safety precautions. This suggests that if we educate people about the history of racial injustices that have been built into our societal systems, maybe we could see different reactions to information about disparities.
I read this study as being one more example of how racism also hurts white people. America is literally sick with racism.
Even though people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, the majority of people who have died from COVID were white.
Your point is an important one. Even though people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, the majority of people who have died from COVID in the U.S. were white. Therefore, to the extent that knowing about racial disparities in COVID led white people to be less supportive of safety precautions, and therefore further perpetuated the virus, which sickened and killed more people, that hurts all of us. It perpetuated the disparities, but it also perpetuated the pandemic.
Is it “rational” behavior for white people, given what we know about the pandemic and racial disparities, not to wear masks? Given that white respondents who measure higher on racial animus and resentment are hostile to Black and brown communities, does refusing to wear a mask reinforce feelings of white superiority and dominance? In essence, do mask mandates trigger anger about white entitlement being infringed upon or taken away?
Dr. LaFleur Stephens-Dougan conducted a study similar to ours, and she found evidence that is consistent with some of what you describe. She observed that among white U.S. residents who stereotype Black people as lazy — when they were exposed to information about racial disparities in COVID, they rated face masks as less important, and also seemed to show a heightened perception that COVID safety precautions infringed upon their personal freedom.
This was especially true among white people with explicit racial biases against Black people: Knowing about racial disparities seemed to make them feel like safety precautions were an unfair imposition, but also seemed to make them think masks were less important.
Where do we go next with your findings and research?
One of the most important things is to do more research to figure out how we as a society can share information about racial disparities in a way that does not trigger this kind of backfiring. Although our attempt at doing this was ineffective, I still think that educating people about history and systems can be a helpful path forward. In other words, we need to educate people — especially white people — about the historic injustices that laid the groundwork for the unequal systems that persist into the present.
This general idea is known as the Marley Hypothesis, which holds that if we know the history, we will better recognize racism in the present. In an entirely different research study, we recently tested whether educating people about racial injustices of the past would impact their perspectives on present-day policies. Promisingly, we found that learning about and discussing historical racial injustice made people more supportive of reforms to address present-day inequalities.
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