TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2022
For the historical record: Near the end of the first Covid year, a certain demographic problem seemed to be developing.
An elevated degree of "vaccine hesitancy" was being recorded among black Americans. At the Washington Post, Michele Norris offered some data concerning this unfortunate state of affairs.
(Norris: "A Pew study from mid-November found that only 42 percent of Black adults said they would get the vaccine. Other studies put the figure even lower. This is compared with 61 percent of Whites, 63 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of (English-speaking) Asian Americans who said they would take the vaccine.")
Sensibly, Norris regarded this as a dangerous problem. At the start of her column, she also said, headline included, that this state of affairs made a lamentable type of sense:
Black people are justifiably wary of a vaccine. Their trust must be earned.
Trust is earned. We all know that. But if a national vaccine campaign is to succeed, we must quickly figure out how to earn the confidence and cooperation of African Americans who are justifiably wary of a coronavirus vaccine.
The world is at war with covid-19, but a successful distribution of a vaccine in the United States will be won and lost on a battlefield with a long history of medical racism. Government-approved medical experiments from the past have undermined Black America’s trust in this moment.
“Vaccine hesitancy” from Black Americans is different from an “anti-vaxxer” stance. It’s not that Black Americans don’t believe in vaccines. They don’t trust a public health system that has in too many cases engaged in grievous harm by experimenting on Black bodies without consent or ignoring the specific needs of Black people.
We wouldn't necessarily disagree with any of that. We would say that Norris was possibly being a bit selective, even in her choice of language, as she constructed her portrait of the developing problem.
We won't focus on that possibility today. Today, we're going to focus on a specific factual claim Norris made as she explained why so many black Americans were exhibiting vaccine resistance.
Norris recalled some of the historical medical racism which, she said, explained the justifiable reluctance of black Americans. Nor was this simply a matter of history. At one point, she offered this:
NORRIS (12/9/20): We are not just tussling with historical wrongs. A recent study of White medical students found that half believed that Black patients had a higher tolerance for pain and were more likely to prescribe inadequate medical treatment as a result.
We'll admit it! When we read Norris' column, we wondered if the highlighted statement was, in fact, actually accurate.
Was it true? Was it true that, in a recent study, half of white medical students said they "believed that Black patients had a higher tolerance for pain?" Was that an accurate statement?
Several questions came to mind as we pondered Norris' statement. We wondered why a study would have surveyed white medical students rather than white physicians. But we also wondered if that statement was factually accurate—was true.
We proceeded to take a look at the study in question. You can review it here.
Citizens, can we talk? Even today, that particular study has the feel of a slight academic scam—or at least, it has that feel to us.
We'll assume it wasn't a deliberate scam, if it was anything like an actual scam at all. But for today, we'll restrict ourselves to the widespread influence that study has had, at least within our own blue tribe.
Over the course of the past two years, we've seen some version of Norris' claim repeated on several occasions. These White Medical Students Today, our tribunes routinely declare.
Most recently, we saw a version of Norris' claim in a column by Damon Young. Young is one of the roughly three thousand columnists currently employed by the Washington Post. Near the end of last month, he started a column as shown:
YOUNG (11/21/22): Race is a social construct with an arbitrary and elastic hierarchy. The only static element is that people deemed “Black” exist at the bottom. American University’s Antiracist Praxis subject guide defines anti-Blackness as “specific forms of racism contingent upon or cast through the denigration, disenfranchisement, and disavowal of people racialized as Black.” And anti-Blackness is atmospheric—felt everywhere, but usually only seen if you know what you’re looking for.
It’s not just a word. Not just another unnecessarily complex form of academese. It’s tangible. Material. Tactile. It’s the belief, for instance, from actual medical professionals today, that Black people have higher tolerances for pain than White people do. Imagine how that fallacy dictates treatment and medication and aftercare and insurance premiums. And then imagine all the societal ripples—the maternal mortality rates, the life expectancy disparities, the mis- and missed diagnoses, the distrust in medicine—stemming from that one misbelief.
We agree with Young about the widespread, atmospheric existence of "anti-Blackness," and about the vast harm this cultural construct can cause. But there was that familiar statement again, sourced, by virtue of a link, to that same recent study.
In Young's treatment, those "white medical students" were now described as "actual medical professionals." But the basic claim was the same, and Young asked readers to "imagine" how much harm can "stem from that one misbelief."
At that time, we went back and looked at that recent study again. We came away with the same impression of that widely cited research.
Then, as the current year drew to an end, we saw a certain widely praised book on several "Best Books" lists. The book was written by Linda Villarosa, a highly regarded author and journalist. As we noted last Saturday, the book in question is this:
Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation
We couldn't help wondering if a version of the claim in question appears in this highly praised book. Yes, it does, on page 40—and a few years ago, Villarosa had offered this version of the claim in a lengthy report for the New York Times Magazine:
VILLAROSA (4/11/18): In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes “fantastical” biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white. For these assumptions, researchers blamed not individual prejudice but deeply ingrained unconscious stereotypes about people of color, as well as physicians’ difficulty in empathizing with patients whose experiences differ from their own.
In Villarosa's rendering, "many" of the "white medical students and residents" who took part in that study falsely believed that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites. Villarosa listed two other false beliefs that "many" of these research subjects held.
"Many" isn't the same as "half." But when we looked again at that UVa study, it didn't seem clear to us that any of the white medical students and residents had actually said that they believed the principal statement in question.
The vast majority of the students and fourth-year residents had said that they didn't believe the statements in question. It still isn't clear to us that any of them had actually said that they did!
In short, the study still seems shaky to us. But its conclusions, stated in rather fuzzy form, have traveled far and wide.
Villarosa is very highly regarded, and so is her new book. We aren't able to evaluate the vast sweep of her findings—and we agree with Young about the massive harm which is caused by the atmospheric anti-Blackness which lingers on as a malevolent part of the brutal racial history of our nation and our world.
We agree with Young about that. We further assume that there's a great deal of merit to Villarosa's widely praised book.
That said, the statement in question might lend itself to a bit of a tiny case study. If we conducted such a cast study, our question would be this:
During this era of Donald J. Trump, the red tribe has often surrendered itself to manifestly crazy belief. Is it possible that we Over Here in our own blue tribe are inclined to put our thumbs on the scale, even if only a tiny tad, as we give voice, on the rare occasion, to our own tribal beliefs?
We'll conduct that case study this week. We offer this for the sake of the historical record, though several despondent anthropologists have told us that none of us humans actually care about any such construct as that.
It has been our experience that we in our highly self-impressed blue tribe have our thumbs on the scales a great deal of the time. The treatment of this study's claims strikes us as one such example.
We'll conduct a case study of those claims this week. According to anthropological experts, your lizard is going to scream and yell and loudly insist that what we're saying is thoroughly wrong, oh so wrong.
Tomorrow: A slightly odd research design?