Economic Disparities – Moving toward solutions

Dr. David Williams is a Harvard Professor.  He has a list of accomplishments that takes several minutes to read through.   I know this because I saw him speak at the Muhammad Ali Center last week, and it took Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt about 5 minutes just to introduce him.

What most resonated with me though was not the papers Dr. Williams has published, the degrees he has, the awards he’s gotten, or the policies he’s helped develop, but that he was a key scientific advisor for the award-winning PBS film series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?  I loved that series, which changed the way I was able to think and talk about inequities related to race and class, and which gave me data to support some of my experience in mental health.  So I was excited to get to hear Dr. Williams in person.

The presentation started with a lot of depressing, discouraging statistics.  You can read more about them here.  The article, from the Courier-Journal, starts out:

For every dollar of income a white household earns, an African-American household earns only 63 cents — and the gap is even starker when it comes to wealth.

“For every dollar of wealth that whites have, blacks and Latinos have only six pennies,” Harvard University professor David R. Williams told more than 50 people Sunday at the Muhammad Ali Center, where he spoke about racial inequities that shape our lives, businesses and society.

The article reported some research on job-seeking and race:

{Dr Williams} cited a study in which two black men and two white men with identical resumes sought jobs in person. One man from each race said he had served a prison sentence. The study found that the white man with the criminal record was more likely to get a call back (17 percent) than black man without a record (14 percent).

Did you get that?  The white man with a felony on his record was more likely to get a call-back for the job than the black man with a clean record.

Discouraging.  Depressing.

And – maybe even more upsetting – when patients presented at a hospital ER with a broken arm or leg, white people were significantly more likely to get pain medication than people of color.  Seriously.

The article in the C-J ends with that kind of disheartening information.  Fortunately, Dr. Williams had a lot more to say.  First, he talked about why we need to make change – from a business perspective.

And I’m going to do the really brief version of this.  Three factors:

~  America is aging.  By 2056, there will be more people 65 and older than 18 and younger.

~  By 2060, the Hispanic and Asian populations will have doubled, and white people will be the numerical minority, while people of color will be the majority.  Already, among children under 1 year old, people of color are the majority.

~  Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II. There are millions of “disconnected” youth – young people between 16 and 24 years old who are not in school and not working.   Each “disconnected” 16 year old will cost taxpayers about $258,040 through a variety of expenses, including, often, jail or prison.  The total anticipated cost for all disconnected youth age 16-24 is $1.56 trillion dollars.

So there will be more people of color – who will be impacted by racism – and more of us old(er) people, who will rely on fewer young people for support.  The question is:

How do we sustain and enhance our stature as a nation of opportunity with pathways to upward mobility that would ensure that our children and grandchildren have the tools and skills to succeed?

We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.  The well-documented racial disparities and inequities won’t help create a strong, stable middle class, which we desperately need.   Dr. Williams suggests a number of steps we can take.

~  Recognize our own bias and how that works

~  Understand how to begin to change the impact of our own bias.

~  Identify and implement evidence based strategies for change.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to focus on recognizing our own bias.

I’ve gotten used to talking about privilege, especially white privilege and the need to call people out when they say/do things that are racist, regardless of whether they “meant it that way” or not.   For well meaning white folks who think racism is bad and don’t want to be racist, being called out can trigger tremendous shame.  Sometimes, just those words – called out – can trigger a strong reaction.

So I struggle to figure out how we let people know when they’re expressing racist viewpoints,  without just increasing their defensiveness.   I know that when I am called out ~ when I am on the receiving end of that message that what I’ve said reflected my white privilege and was racist ~ I sometimes struggle to manage my own shame so that I can hear the feedback.

Dr. Williams took a slightly different perspective.  He talked about prejudice and discrimination in a very non-judgmental way, using a couple of examples to illustrate what he meant.  Gently, casually, he said something like, “Of course we discriminate.  And we show favoritism for our own group.  We all do it.  It’s part of being human.”

He continued, “If I divide you into two groups right now, and I put half of you in blue shirts,” gesturing to the left side of the auditorium, “and half of you in red shirts,” gesturing to the right, “very quickly, those of you in the red shirts will begin to prefer others in red shirts and those of you in the blue shirts will prefer other blue shirts.  And you will try to get the best resources for your in-group.  That’s just how we are, that’s how we function.”

Those words, and the way he said them, were illuminating, without triggering shame or defensiveness.  Normalizing the thoughts and feelings reduces the shame.

Then there was this slide:

Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles

*  Visitors to museum see two doors. One door is labeled “prejudiced.” The other door is marked “unprejudiced.”

•  If one tries to enter the “unprejudiced” door, you find that the door is locked and it is not possible to enter the museum through that door.

•  The following message is then projected on the unprejudiced door: THINK… NOW USE THE OTHER DOOR.

•  Reflects the museum’s attempt to communicate, in dramatic fashion, that to a greater degree than we normally acknowledge, that we are all prejudiced.

•  We have all been affected by the culture in which we were raised, and to some degree, we have been affected by the larger stereotypes of our culture

Unless we are willing to own our prejudice, we can’t take the first step toward resolving the problems created by the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism.   Normalizing prejudice reduces defensiveness and makes us better able to hear feedback.

Of course, we still need to recognize that the power structure in our society is over-represented with white people, and designed to support white privilege, which is why it is systemically racist.  But the tendency to favor and protect your own group is not an individual fault, it’s just the way people are.  If prejudice is a natural part of being human, then there’s no need to feel shame about it.



Community leaders/organizations need to play a leadership role in raising awareness levels of the deeply embedded, subtle forms of prejudice that are pervasive and unrecognized.

Currently, we don’t even know we have a problem 

If you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, but how will we get people to do this?” then you’ve forgotten the first part of this discussion.  If we don’t remedy the inequities that result from racial disparities, we will end up with a population that is not prepared to maintain a solid, stable society.  If we are not motivated by a sense of fairness and a desire for justice,  we need to recognize that it is in our own best interest to work toward a society that supports success for everyone.

So, the problem is not that we tend to be prejudiced.  The problem is that we unthinkingly act on the underlying prejudice  – and we can’t begin to make changes until we recognize the problem.   Only after we’ve recognized it in ourselves can we begin to remedy the problem.

To summarize, changes in the demographics of our population will lead to a minority of older people who are white and a majority of younger people of color.  Currently, there are millions of people between the ages of 16 and 24, White, African-American, and Hispanic, who are “disconnected” – neither working nor in school.  This group of youth will ultimately cost our society about 1.56 trillion dollars.

We need a society that will be healthy and productive, but in order to achieve that, we need to eliminate racial disparities. The first step to doing this, is recognizing the impact our own natural prejudice and in-group favoritism has on how we behave.

Dr. Williams had lots more to say, and specific steps we can take to reduce the impact of our own prejudices.  I’ll talk about that in my next post, and then move on to other steps we can take as a community to reduce racial disparities.

{Note:  Dr. Williams generously shared his power point slides with me, so the slides are all from his presentation, and being used with permission.  He also has a number of talks on youtube if you want to hear some of this information from the source.  But I don’t think the particular talk he did here in Louisville is on youtube.}




About Fausta

Trauma sensitive Consultant and Coach for Compassionate professionals who experience second hand trauma and are at risk of burnout so they can keep doing the work that matters to them and to the world.

Posted on April 6, 2014, in Disparities and Solutions. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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