James captivates audience with discussion of achieving racial equity in America

December 3, 2015

Sherman James

Dean Tom Chandler (left) and Professor Sherman James at the 2015 Annual Winona B. Vernberg Distinguished Lecture Series

After introductions from Arnold School Dean Tom Chandler and Associate Professor Katrina Walsemann, Professor Sherman James presented “The Black Image in the White Mind: Implications for Achieving Racial Equity in America” at the Annual Winona B. Vernberg Distinguished Lecture Series on November 18. James, who is currently a professor of epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, discussed causes, effects, challenges and possible solutions related to racial inequity and health disparities.

The S.C. native began his presentation by discussing the recent epidemic of lethal use of force against unarmed black people by both police and non-police, particularly the June 2015 shooting of nine bible study members in Charleston and the resulting outcomes (e.g., forgiveness by family members, removal of flag). James pointed out that though these symbolic effects are encouraging, there is still much work to be done “to climb the steep mountain of racial equity in America,” especially as it relates to explicit and implicit (i.e., unconscious) stereotypes by whites that permeate American culture.

“One of the greatest, if not the greatest, challenges we face today in achieving racial equity in America is widespread, unconscious anti-black racial bias,” he said. “It is important that we figure out how to build partnerships with scholars, activists and policy makers who have taken up this charge.”

James summarized some research on how cultural forces condition the human brain to respond to people of a different race and how anti-black bias is manifested in three major social systems (criminal justice, health care, education) that have population health consequences. He then made some suggestions for interventions at the structural and individual levels for each system.

In discussing how historical examples of progress toward racial equality (e.g., Civil Rights legislation) have often followed the unwarranted loss of many black lives, James asked, “must the price for progress be so great?” “No, the price need not be so great,” he answered.

Sherman James Lecture

Professor Sherman James delivered the keynote presentation, “The Black Image in the White Mind: Implications for Achieving Racial Equity in America.”

“Viable ideas regarding a way forward exist—ideas that are well grounded in both social science theory and common sense,” he explained. “Our challenge is to figure out how to get them implemented on a wide enough scale to make a real and lasting difference.” See the full video of James’ keynote presentation here.

James was a mentor of Walsemann’s during her doctoral program at the University of Michigan. Together with sociology’s Andrea Henderson, Walsemann brought James to the University of Carolina’s campus through the Provost’s Visiting Scholars Grant Program for a week of collaboration with the university’s Population and Health Research Group, a group of interdisciplinary scholars who work on issues surrounding social and health equity.

The Vernberg Lecture is named for the late Winona Vernberg, a professor and scientist who conducted research to improve the environment. Vernberg also served as the second dean of the Arnold School, helping the school flourish and expand during her 18 years of leadership.

Since its inception, the Vernberg Lecture has become one of the Arnold School’s signature programs, bringing internationally recognized speakers to campus to discuss public health topics, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, strokes and aphasia, tobacco policy, disparities and air pollution.

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