Magazine article Essence

No, You're Not Imagining It

Magazine article Essence

No, You're Not Imagining It

Article excerpt

WE GROW UP UNDERSTANDING THAT IN EVERY AREA-FROM JOBS TO EDUCATION TO HOUSING TO HEALTH CARE-OUR CLIMB IS MADE HARDER BY THE NATION'S DEEP-SEATED BIAS AGAINST AFRICAN-AMERICANS. BUT HOW DO WE CONFRONT AND CHANGE THOSE ATTITUDES WHEN MUCH OF THE BIAS AGAINST US THAT WHITES FEEL-AND ACT UPON-ISNT EVEN CONSCIOUS? PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR ISABEL WILKERSON ASKS HARVARD SOCIOLOGIST DR. DAVID R. WILLIAMS TO PULL BACK THE VEIL ON THE NUANCES OF RACE RELATIONS IN AMERICA TODAY

It was just past dusk when David R. Williams, then a sociology professor at Yale, headed to his car to make the drive home. Dressed in a jacket and tie, Williams deposited his briefcase and books on the car seat, turned the ignition and was about to pull out when a light blinded him. "A police officer was in my face with a big flashlight," he recalls. "I turned down the window and said, 'I'm Professor Williams. Can you tell me why I'm being harassed?' " The officer, who was White, was offended; he resented the word "harassed," but he failed to see the problem with stopping a faculty member for doing nothing more than starting his car. Williams, by then a veteran of such encounters, remained calm. "You're upset that I'm using the word 'harassed,' " he told the officer. "I'm upset that I'm being harassed." The officer explained that there had been thefts lately and that he was supposed to check out anything suspicious. "So a Black man walking to his car is suspicious?" Williams said.

The officer's assumption, which plays out countless times a day across the country, was triggered by unconscious bias, says Williams, 59, a married father of three. Now a professor of sociology and public health at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Williams is among a handful of scholars measuring ways in which racial discrimination affects physical and mental health. He notes that the nation is still in transition from an era of overt legal discrimination-when most White Americans were openly hostile to Black Americans-to one in which a majority of Whites now express a belief in equality but, researchers say, still hold a deeply unconscious negative bias against Black people. This bias is so automatic that it kicks in before a person is ever aware it exists. Anti-Black messages are so pervasive in American society that a third of Black Americans hold an anti-Black bias as well. This means that when we apply for jobs, attempt to buy a house, go after a promotion or seek treatment at an emergency room, our chance of achieving a successful outcome is diminished. And with so many Whites socialized to believe that discrimination no longer exists, the cost to African-Americans' physical and emotional health can be devastating, measured not only in the higher incidence of hypertension and diabetes but in inferior medical treatment, a lower likelihood of getting pain medication, and shorter life spans.

"Unconscious bias is literally killing African-Americans," says Williams. It's the reason that he has devoted his life to understanding how it is expressed. He agreed to sit down with ESSENCE to talk about the latest research and about what we can do to protect ourselves.

ISABEL WILKERSON: How has discrimination changed and how does it operate now?

DR. DAVID WILLIAMS: We have shifted from biological racism to cultural racism. Sixty years ago most people in America believed that Blacks were biologically inferior, made-by-God inferior. Today there is a cultural racism that says Black parents are not giving their children the right values, and it's often offered as a reason for why Blacks are not doing as well as other groups. It associates "Black" with a range of negative assumptions that are so deeply embedded in American culture that people who hold them are not bad people. They're just "good Americans," because it's what American society has taught them. Researchers put together a database of what the average college-educated American would read in his entire lifetime, a database of 10 million words from books, newspapers, magazine articles, various documents. …

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