A recent study asserts that people generally believe black people feel less pain than whites.
Called the racial empathy gap, it helps to explain the persistence of racial disparities.
In one experiment, researchers showed white participants video clips of needles entering someone’s skin. My measuring their reactions (by how sweaty their hands became), they found that the participants responded more dramatically to whites than blacks.
But the researchers did not believe racial prejudice was entirely to blame. After all, black participants also displayed an empathy gap toward other blacks. What could possibly be the explanation for why black people’s pain is underestimated?
It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants’ assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that “the present work finds that people assume that, relative to whites, blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”
This gives us some insight into how racial disparities are created—and how they are sustained. First, there is an underlying belief that there is a single black experience of the world. Because this belief assumes blacks are already hardened by racism, people believe black people are less sensitive to pain. Because they are believed to be less sensitive to pain, black people are forced to endure more pain.
The racial empathy gap has had very serious ramifications; its impact can be felt in everything from medical care, to social and economic policies, to the criminal justice system.
Thoughts on the results of this study?
Can anything be done to close the racial empathy gap?
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