How Racism Is Bad for Our Bodies

'Stop and Frisk' is a threat to public health on a large scale.

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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Trial in the federal class action lawsuit on the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al, begins on March 18. At stake is whether the controversial tactic is a racial profiling practice, which violates civil and constitutional rights. Filed by four plaintiffs who were stopped and frisked, the suit represents the entire class of people who have been racially profiled.

But racial profiling is not only a danger to a person's legal rights, which guarantee equal protection under the law. It is also a danger to their health.

A growing literature shows discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical problems. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertensioncardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and mortality. Recently, two journals -- The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race -- dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field's leaders, terms "embodied inequality."

A breakout moment in the study of discrimination and health came in 1988, when the CDC recorded a disturbing disparity in black-white infant mortality. In response, TheAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine published a special supplement, "Racial Differences in Preterm Delivery: Developing a New Paradigm." What was this new paradigm? By this time, we already knew there were significant racial disparities in health. But these scholars offered a new explanation for them. What they argued is that we must focus on the everyday experience of these women -- and think about how social stressors might be harming their health, even causing preterm delivery.

Merely the anticipation of racism, and not necessarily the act, is enough to trigger a stress response.

A new study by Kathryn Freeman Anderson in Sociological Inquiry adds evidence to the hypothesis that racism harms health. To study the connection, Anderson analyzed the massive 2004 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which includes data for other 30,000 people. Conceptually, she proposes a simple pathway with two clear steps. First, because of the prevalence of racial discrimination, being a racial minority leads to greater stress. Not surprisingly, Anderson found that 18.2 percent of black participants experienced emotional stress and 9.8 percent experienced physical stress. Comparatively, only 3.5 and 1.6 percent of whites experienced emotional and physical stress, respectively.

Second, this stress leads to poorer mental and physical health. But this is not only because stress breaks the body down. It is also because stress pushes people to cope in unhealthy ways. When we feel stressed, we may want a drink and, if we want a drink, we may also want a cigarette. But discrimination is not just any form of stress. It is a type of stress that disproportionately affects minorities.

Here we see how racism works in a cycle to damage health. People at a social disadvantage are more likely to experience stress from racism. And they are less likely to have the resources to extinguish this stress, because they are at a social disadvantage.

It gets worse. Just the fear of racism alone should switch on the body's stress-response systems. This makes sense -- if we think our environment contains threats, then we will be on guard. But it raises a question that is prevalent in the study of the impact of discrimination on health. How can we test the relationship with experimental, rather than correlational, methods?

Pamela J. Sawyer and colleagues ran an experiment to test the link between the anticipation of prejudice and increased psychological and cardiovascular stress. Appearing in The American Journal of Public Health's special issue on "The Science of Research on Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Health," their experiment paired Latina college students with white females. The white females served as confederates (that is, accomplices to the researchers). Each participant filled out attitude forms, which included questions on racial stereotypes. Some confederates answered the questions as a racist might, others did not.

Presented by

Jason Silverstein is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard, where he also works with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

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