The Overly Simplistic Framing of “Reducing Racial Disparities”

The only time my life was even moderately endangered when I worked in the Obama White House was at the first meeting of the HIV/AIDS strategy development group. Someone had noted that the African-American female infection rate was far greater than the White female rate, and proposed that the President’s strategy try to eliminate the disparity.

I said that I thought that was a bad goal.

For an anxiety-ridden moment, there were death stares facing me around the table. But once I explained my reservations, everyone agreed. The point I made was that the disparity could be eliminated if the rate of White female infection quadrupled and the rate of African-American infection only doubled, an outcome that would leave us all in tears. We therefore shouldn’t be pursuing disparity reduction per se, but reduction in absolute amounts, i.e., the goal should be to reduce the African-American female infection rate.

This came back to me as I put together some data on Black and White women’s levels of imprisonment. If you had set the goal in 1985 to reduce the disparity (It was 7 to 1 then) you could declare victory in 2015 (Disparity dropped to 2 to 1) today because both groups are far more likely to be in prison, it’s just that the growth in the White women’s rate has been faster.

More on these data in my piece in Washington Post today.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “The Overly Simplistic Framing of “Reducing Racial Disparities””

  1. What is the first sentence of this post supposed to mean? Obviously it's a joke, but what's the joke?

    1. Sorry, I could have written that better. I have edited to indicate that for a moment people in the room looked like they wanted to kill me.

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