Paul R. Lehman, NIH Grants disparity for African Americans may be due to subtle bigotry

September 25, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Posted in Bigotry in America, blacks, Prejudice, Race in America, whites | 3 Comments
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An interesting news story this week showed how consumers are
manipulated into purchasing items they had not intended to purchase when they
entered some store. The stores employ a number of tactics that use the power of
suggestion to stimulate the consumers’ actions to purchase more than they
intended. One such tactic is the placement of flowers near the store’s entrance
to engage the consumer’s sight and smell. Another tactic is the placement of
items at eye level so the consumer makes eye contact with the items without
consciously wanting to do so. Another tactic is the placement of related items
near each other so the consumers’ attention is automatically drawn to both
related items simultaneously. The fact that the human mind can be manipulated
without an individual’s conscious awareness happens in other areas of society
as well. For example, a recent study reported in Science indicated that a disparity exist in the number of Federal
Research Grants awarded African Americans when compared to those awarded to
European Americans. The study involved grants submitted to the National
Institute of Health (NIH).The report is available on line at Science 7, September, 2011.

What the research discovered was that “A Black scientist was
one-third likely than a white counterpart to get a research project
financed.”That was the conclusion arrived at by Donna K. Ginther, a professor
of economics at Kansas University. She stated further that “It was very
unexpected to find this big of a gap that couldn’t be explained.”The report
indicated, for example, that “For every 100 applications submitted by white
scientist, 29 were awarded grants. For every 100 applications submitted by
Black scientists, 16 were financed.”The reason for the disparity seems to be a

A number of procedures were instituted to try and insure
anonymity of the researchers, but the outcome of those procedures did not
change the ratio of awards granted. The report found, however, that “On the
grant applications, researchers are asked to identify their race and ethnicity,
but that information is not passed along to the review committee.” The report noted
that it was possible that the identity of some of the applicants was known
through associations and simply by the name of the university. Most officials
believe that the practice is not a deliberate effort to deny African American
scientists funding. So, how does one explain the cause of the problem?

Dr. Otis W. Brawley,
worked at the National Cancer Institute in the 1990’s,a part of the NIH,and
believes that “it is more likely an unconscious bias,… with the reviewers more
likely to give the benefit of the doubt to someone they are familiar with, and
with Black researchers tending to keep a low profile in the scientific world.”In
essence, the choices made are not based on race consciously, but on
familiarity. So, if African American scientists do not make the effort to make
the acquaintance of European American scientists, then they do not stand a good
chance of being funded because the reviewers do not know them. That train of
thought would work against submitting grant proposals and having them accepted
or rejected on their merit.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the NIH, believes
with Dr. Brawley that part of the problem might be a form of bias: “even today,
in 2011, in our society, there is still an unconscious, insidious form of bias
that subtly influences people’s opinions.”He continued by stating “I think that
may be very disturbing for people in the scientific community to contemplate,
but I think we have to take that as one of the possibilities and investigate it
and see if that is in fact still happening.”The mere fact that a disparity
exists with awarding grants to African Americans indicate that other problems
exist as well.

Contrary to the belief of many people, bigotry does not have
to be blatant or overt to be dangerous and destructive. As in the example of
the stores using the power of suggestion to increase sales, the power of
suggestion also works in other ways as well. For example, when an African
American male walks through a parking lot, the sound of car door locks being
engaged is not unusual. That is not to say that this does not happen with other
ethnic males. Also, when an African American male walks into a store his
presence usually signals women to protect their purses. Of course these actions
can and do occur with other ethic males, but it happens especially with African
American males because their physical presence, and specifically their skin
color triggers an unconscious response of danger. That unconscious response is
based, however, on the actual belief of African American men being potentially
dangerous thieves and murderers.

The NIH investigation found the disparity to focus attention
on other areas in science where African American scientists should be receiving
attention and assistance but are not. Those areas will be addressed in the
future. However, the fact that the report shows that a large disparity exist
presently might discourage some promising young African Americans from pursuing
careers in science. One can hope that will not be the case. The presence of
many more young African American scientists is needed, and this report should
help to initiate programs to find and recruit them. They will need to know,
however, that their success or failure will not be based on their ethnicity.

Sometimes we forget that bigotry was and to a large degree
is still a deeply seeded part of the American psyche. For validation of that
fact, we need only look at the reception given to President Barack Obama by
many citizens, and indeed, the Congress. When we as a society fail to keep a
watchful eye on the variety and myriad subtle manifestations of bigotry, we not
only permit it to continue but also ignore its dangerous and destructive
consequences. Whether blatant or subtle, bigotry in whatever form or location must
be identified and corrected if our society is to secure the blessings of freedom
and liberty to all it citizens.


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  1. Interesting but not surprising. This country and all of it’s systems and institutions were built for the sole use and benefit of one ethnic group. More than 90 percent of the country’s history was committed to insuring that everything worked for one group and against all others. And, as you have pointed out many times, this system was previously supported and justified by science. Not surprising.

  2. If it is that bad with grants, imagine just getting a job. We are a world away, and without the same history, but it will be interesting to see how Mr O goes in the job market when he finishes his course……

  3. I suspect that we “European Americans” as well as African Americans often fail to receive something because we may think it will do no good to ask. We are our own detriment in those cases.
    As to the remark about Congress, a talk show guest a few nights ago said some congsressmen are not going to ever accept a proposal by President Obama because of (1) his party label and (2) the color of his skin. In Obama’s case, I believe it is more party label than skin color. (I am painfully aware of how President Clinton was treated.) I may be wrong, but that’s my view for whatever it’s worth.

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