High Price to Pay for Being Poor
Working-class parents may be more likely to be suspected of child abuse, says an Indiana University study that measured pediatricians’ reactions to hypothetical situations describing an injured toddler. Researchers presented 2,100 U.S. pediatricians with fictional accounts of an 18 month old child with a fractured leg. The injury was described as “ambiguous”—meaning that it could have been caused by an accident or by abuse. Moreover, doctors were more likely to suspect abuse in cases in which the parents’ jobs were described working-class, such as grocery clerk or factory worker, than they were if the parents had been described as an accountant or a bank manager.
Researchers were surprised that race did not play an obvious role in the doctors’ reactions. When the child was described as black, 45 percent of respondents said abuse was “possibly” or “most certainly” the cause of the injury, with nearly one-third (32 percent) saying they were “unsure.” When the child in the scenario was white, 46 percent of pediatricians suspected abuse, with more than a quarter (28 percent) saying they were unsure.
When the child’s family was described as lower-income, nearly half of doctors suspected abuse (48 percent), versus 43 percent of respondents when the family was higher-income.
Lead researcher and pediatrician Dr. Antoinette L. Laskey and her team conclude that income and parental professions may have more of an impact on doctors’ diagnoses than race.
Laskey is not dismissing race as a factor altogether, but rather, she told Reuters, that “there’s more than race involved,” when doctors make unconscious conclusions like those demonstrated in the study.
Psychotherapist Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, who was not involved in this study, maintains that attitudes about race play a bigger role in interpersonal relationships than most people realize. “People don’t wake up in the morning and say they want to be discriminatory,” Pender Greene tells demodirt.com.
These painful yet automatic acts of distrust and disregard stem from unconscious attitudes of racial superiority, known as microaggressions. Coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce MD in the 1970s, microaggressions are defined as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.”
Microaggressions are demeaning assumptions and other subtle insults against people of color and, Pierce says, are “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors.” They are believed to play a role in unfairness in the criminal justice system as they can influence the decisions of the police, judges and juries. It is therefore likely, Pender Greene contends, that microaggressions have an impact on the views and decisions of doctors and others who assess and report possible child abuse.
Examples of microaggressional behavior, she explains, vary from “driving while black”—when black motorists are unfairly targeted by police—to more mundane, everyday occurrences. “When a black physician comes to another doctor’s office to meet him for lunch, and the receptionist looks up and asks him for his Medicaid card,” Pender Greene says. “Or when a black person is a guest at a wedding and someone comes over to hand him his coat and hat—thinking he is an employee of the establishment—these are microaggressions, which are brought on by the unconscious mind.”
The offender, she notes, has internalized negative stereotypes about people of color and may not mean to be offensive.
Why were physicians as likely to suspect abuse in poor white families as they were to do so of poor blacks? “Lower-class people are thought to have lower morals,” Pender Greene explains.
This classist stereotype, she adds, affects people of color most because “often times, people of color are disproportionally poor —as a result there are more people of color in lower SES than there are whites.
“It is important to remember that being economically poor does not equate to being poor in morals or character,” Pender Greene notes. As a result, people of color are overrepresented in abuse cases and foster care situations, and even in special education and the criminal justice systems.
Racism and classism hurt everyone, however. While a white child from an upper middle class home suffers abuse in silence, a black family may be falsely accused of hurting their child.
“Stereotyping, microaggressions and racism affect all people,” Pender Greene concludes.
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