May 05, 2016
The “Color of Wealth” report, with its meaningful conclusions and questionable analyses, surely would have been an interesting thing for the L.A. Times to cover. But do you know what study the paper chose to run a feature about instead? The same week that other news outlets were covering “The Color of Wealth,” the Times ran a piece titled “Does a white doctor understand a black patient’s pain?” The article approvingly promoted a study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS). That study is titled “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites“ (succinct, catchy titles are apparently a UVA specialty). According to the abstract, it “reveals that a substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites.” The primary false belief examined is that black people are more impervious to physical pain than whites. The researchers at UVA created four fictional black patients and four fictional white ones (with “stereotypically black and white names”: Taneisha, Kiesha, Darnell, and Jermaine, and Hannah, Katelyn, Brett, and Connor), each with similar medical issues, exam notes, and lab results. Several hundred white laypeople, medical students, and residents were then presented with these case studies and asked to rate the level of pain each “patient” was experiencing.
According to the Times article, and the abstract on the PNAS site, a “substantial” number of the white respondents held the “false belief” that the black patients felt less pain than the white ones, and”when asked for treatment recommendations”the ignorant whites prescribed more pain meds for the white patients than for the blacks. Appalling! But, in the words of Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever, “I shmelt a rat.” I emailed lead researcher Kelly Hoffman to find out if nonwhite laypeople, medical students, and residents were sampled as well. After telling me that she and her colleagues “did not have enough non-white participants among the laypeople for study” (not enough nonwhite laypeople? That lady obviously doesn”t live in my neighborhood), she admitted that yes, they had sampled nonwhite medical students and residents about those false beliefs, and yes, “non-whites do endorse these beliefs.”
The existence of the nonwhite respondents, and the fact that they held the same false beliefs as the white ones, was completely left out of the Times article and the abstract on the PNAS site. Hoffman did add that although the nonwhite respondents held the same false beliefs, they didn”t underprescribe pain meds as the white respondents did. But that can be spun a different way. It’s just as easy to turn it around and claim that the white respondents prescribed properly based on their belief about the black patients” pain levels, while the nonwhite respondents, holding those same beliefs, overprescribed (i.e., prescribed more meds than appropriate for the level of pain the respondents believed the black patients were experiencing). But spin is subjective. What is not is the fact that the Times, the PNAS, and the survey’s own abstract represented the study in a manner that made it seem as though whites alone hold those false beliefs.
So what have we learned this week? Well, we learned that the L.A. Times will, true to character, ignore a groundbreaking study that raises complex questions about the nature and existence of “white privilege” in L.A. in favor of one that unfairly pummels whites for their “racist beliefs”; we learned that selectivity in immigration is good; we learned that certain nonwhite groups are doing so well in this country that leftist academics are running out of reasons to claim they”re not; we learned that my impoverished cobbler great-granddad from a Minsk shtetl was totally middle class; and finally, we learned that there are no nonwhite laypeople in Charlottesville.
All told, a most informative and enlightening week.