Not Racing to Help

By Conner, Alana | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Not Racing to Help


Conner, Alana, Stanford Social Innovation Review


HUMAN RIGHTS

From every angle, the photographs of New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina captured black people waiting for help - on overpasses and rooftops, in the Superdome and convention center, at bus terminals and airports, everywhere. One year later, evaluations of governments' responses to Katrina confirmed that help indeed dragged its feet.

Although incompetence and lack of preparation certainly stalled relief, racism was also a likely culprit, suggest the findings of three recent psychology experiments. Across these studies, "white participants were less likely and slower to help black people than white people - particularly in a severe emergency," says E. Ashby Plant, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and one of the study's authors. "Black participants didn't do this," she adds, noting that black participants responded to both black and white victims with equal frequency and speed.

The studies further showed why white participants tarried in their cross-racial rescues: "White students lack experience with black people and know the negative cultural stereotypes about them," and so they are apprehensive about interacting, says Plant. To justify dieir failure to act, white participants then underplayed the severity of the emergency- just as the Bush adhiinistration initially underreported the damage in post-Katrina New Orleans.

For the studies, Plant and graduate student Jonathan Kunstman crafted a dramatic scenario. Undergraduate participants believed that they were solving puzzles with a fellow student in a different room, which they observed through a closed-circuit television.

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