By Kaytlin Nickens/ Capital News Service
The commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health faces backlash after stating that most white people are unconsciously “pro-white” and “anti-black.”
Dr. Norman Oliver’s remarks came through a weekly message last week sent to VDH employees. Oliver, who is African-American, was addressing the controversy over the discovery of a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page of his 1984 medical school yearbook. The picture showed a man in Ku Klux Klan garb beside another in blackface.
“Unfortunately, as I know from my own research prior to joining VDH, the majority of whites (and a number of African Americans) are implicitly, that is, unconsciously, pro-white and anti-black,” the letter stated. “We have a great challenge ahead of us to increase awareness of our unconscious racial biases and find ways to mitigate, reduce, or eliminate them.”
In a follow-up internal message this week, Oliver acknowledged that his “weekly message” sparked comments from some offended employees.
“I didn’t say that all whites are racist,” Oliver wrote in the follow-up message aiming to clarify his remarks, “rather, I said that the majority of whites have an implicit or unconscious preference for whites over blacks.”
A state worker, who provided the internal messages on the condition of anonymity, said Oliver’s follow-up letter defending himself satisfied some employees but did little to ease concern from others who considered his remarks out of bounds.
In Oliver’s original letter, he drew a distinction between “anti-black” bias and racism, stating that the vast majority of whites are not explicitly racist.
“Racist and stereotype views of black people were pervasive in the state and in the country,” the letter stated. “Moreover, the events of August 2017 in Charlottesville demonstrate that white supremacist views still hold sway among some Americans of European descent. Thankfully, only a small minority of whites hold such racist views.”
“Some employees mistakenly thought I was calling all whites racist,” Oliver said in an email to Capital News Service. “I wasn’t, and I made it clear that I was talking about unconscious biases.”
Oliver said unconscious bias is also shared by a “significant number of African-Americans.”
“What do we mean when we say someone is a racist?” Oliver wrote in his follow-up message to employees.
“Most of us mean that such a person consciously believes their racial category is superior to others. A racist actively and deliberately discriminates against members of the supposedly inferior racial categories. A racist may harbor such racial hatred that they seek to cause bodily harm to people in these other racial categories. Let’s call such racism intentional and personally mediated, that is, committed by that individual.
“The majority of whites in the commonwealth, and in the country, do not hold such views or commit such actions. In fact, the majority of whites explicitly, that is consciously reject such racist notions.”
Oliver stated in his letter that those who are “explicitly anti-racist” but still hold “racial biases” can be led to “unintentionally discriminate against those whom they are biased against.” He pointed to studies that have found clinicians with unconscious pro-white biases are more likely to inadequately treat or manage pain among black patients who suffer heart attacks.
Before he was appointed commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health in 2018, Oliver was the chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Oliver’s research focuses on improving people’s understanding of the role of racial discrimination, bias, health injustice, and racial and ethnic health disparities, among other things.
“In the wake of the events of the last few days, I pledge that the senior leadership will work with Office of Health Equity and others to bring this discussion of race, racism, and equity to our offices and local health districts,” the initial letter said. “We will heal through having a crucial conversation about our common humanity and making a mutual commitment to racial justice.”
“In the coming weeks and months,” Oliver wrote in his most recent letter to state health workers, “we will continue our discussion about racism and what we can do as an agency to help eliminate racial inequities in health.”