Shankar Vedantam and the team from NPR Hidden's Brain delivers another informative and salient episode on How Our Identities Shapes Health and Educational Success in the context of another act of recent racist violence that has surfaced to national attention. In the podcast, Vedantam addresses the value of how a common race can propel a successful outcome. For example, Vedantam cites health studies that address patients’ compliance with medical doctor recommendations. When a black patient receives the recommendation from a black doctor, the patient is 20-70% more likely to follow medical recommendations compared to recommendations from a non-black doctor. The reason for the dramatic increase in the success is attributed to how patients feel with doctors of the same race: shared understanding. The same findings are seen with white patients and white doctors. The same phenomenon is repeated in education. Elementary black students who have black teachers have a 20-30% increase in test scores. These positive outcomes persisted over decades. The young black children with black teachers have an increased chance of continuing their education, less likely to drop out of school, and more likely to sit for standardized national exams such as the SATs. A similar pattern emerges with gender. Female high school students with female Calculus teachers are more likely to succeed in math and go into STEM careers. A shared identity (race, gender, etc) is critical for engendering trust and inspiring individuals to follow up and follow through. The shared identity can also reduce negative behaviors. In one example, Vedantam interviewed researchers who demonstrate that willful defiance is markedly reduced when young black high school students have black teachers compared to white teachers. When the teacher asks the student to quiet down, for example, some students will willfully defy the teachers. This defiance may lead the teachers to escalate the interaction and send the student to the principal office. However, when black students have black teachers, the incidence of willful defiance dropped by over a half. The reason is traced back to the black student feeling of a sense of trust with a black teacher because of shared race and common understanding. One black interviewee remarked, and I paraphrase, “a white person can tell me they understand, but when a black person tells me they understand, I know they really understand.”
This begets the question about addressing important social issues such as education and health by matching patients/students with doctors/teachers of the same race or gender. Some may interpret this matching as intentional segregation. We’ve spent centuries overcoming gender and racial segregation and strong scientific evidence support racial / gender matching to help us get our desired outcomes. Here, Vendantam makes a great point. With these types of important outcomes (e.g. education success of our children, health wellness of our communities), peoples’ willingness to be active participants of their lives is dependent on trust with the providers of the services. As Ruth Bader Ginsberg stated in her book "My Own Words" addressing Affirmative Action for college entrance, the common theme is about the intention. When the intention of the policy is to connect people, and build trust, then these interventions are necessary. This type of racial matching is distinct from the historical racial segregation because the intention is to connect people and promote a sense of community (NOT segregate people based on sentiments of intolerance or discrimination). When the providers come from a shared background, patients connect with providers on a deeper level that will engender trust and increase the chance of better health. “Like begets like” adage holds true because “People Like Us” help bridge trust and empathy.
In the midst of recent alarming racial police violence and xenophobia capturing our national attention, how can we effectively mitigate and address these social issues? We all want to feel safe and protected and we want this for our friends, family, community, and country. It's possible that we can achieve these goals by engendering more trust among people. What can we do to promote trust during these highly charged, high-risk interactions such as interactions with law enforcement? The answer may be “like helps like”. In addition to racial sensitivity training for all personnel involved, maybe we can increase trust and decrease these egregious acts of racism by matching our law enforcement personnel with perpetrators/victims by race? What if the police officer charged to address George Floyd’s case was a black police officer? How much different would the outcome be? Being sensitive to the larger role of trust and empathy which are at play can help us work towards a more peaceful society, connected by shared interests and similarities rather than differences. Having more ethnic diversity in our law enforcement, health providers, educators, policymakers, etc, and levering this diversity to connect individuals with similar demographics (e.g. backgrounds, race, gender, age, etc), may help us achieve our desired outcomes more effectively if we desire to live in a more psychologically safe and peaceful place.