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White people feared COVID less after learning other races were hit hardest, data show

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Could it be that white people made aware that COVID is hurting Black and brown people more than anyone else start to care less about the virus themselves? New research suggests yes. Here's NPR's Adrian Florido.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Earlier in the pandemic, when COVID's rampage through Black and brown communities first started getting lots of press, Allison Skinner-Dorkenoo wondered whether all that attention could be a problem.

ALLISON SKINNER-DORKENOO: Thinking about the way in which it could actually sort of associate the virus with people of color and making white people less concerned about COVID-19.

FLORIDO: Skinner-Dorkenoo is a University of Georgia psychologist. And to find out whether this was actually happening, she and colleagues designed a study. They asked white people how aware they were of COVID's racial disparities and then later how much they feared COVID.

SKINNER-DORKENOO: What we found was that the more people perceived there to be racial disparities, the less fearful they were of COVID-19, and the less they supported safety precautions to prevent the spread.

FLORIDO: The findings published in the journal Social Science and Medicine didn't exactly surprise Skinner-Dorkenoo. There's a long history of social psychology research showing white Americans tend to be less concerned about problems that mostly affect non-white people. But the results did concern her. Could it be that all the attention paid to COVID's racial disparities has prolonged the pandemic?

SKINNER-DORKENOO: We need to try and figure out how we can make people aware of disparities, so that they can be addressed without having this kind of backfire effect that potentially even exacerbates them.

LAFLEUR STEPHENS-DOUGAN: I do think that has implications for public health messaging, and those are troubling implications.

FLORIDO: LaFleur Stephens-Dougan is a Princeton political scientist. She also surveyed white people early in the pandemic, with similar findings. And she's wondered whether part of the solution might be more humanizing public health campaigns.

STEPHENS-DOUGAN: I'm not saying that we need to humanize people of color more to make them more sympathetic for people to do what's right for society. But if, you know, stark facts results in this backlash effect, then we have to think creatively about what might attenuate some of that backlash.

FLORIDO: That's hard, she says, because of the ways that racism, notions of individualism and politics have all factored into people's feelings about the pandemic.

FATIMA CODY STANFORD: It's so complex, right?

FLORIDO: Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford is a director of anti-racism initiatives at Massachusetts General Hospital. She thinks the approach must start by engaging people who say they don't care about COVID safety measures.

CODY STANFORD: To test out certain things on them to see if their emotion is moved, right? We know that what drives people particularly in this domain is emotion. So how do you get to their gut?

FLORIDO: They're questions public health experts, she says, are just starting to grapple with. Adrian Florido, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINOBE'S "CELESTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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