Study after study proves that the stress of experiencing racism and discrimination is making people sick. Sick as in being more likely to experience breast cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, stroke, diabetes and premature mortality. As in being four times more likely than a white American to die in childbirth or during pregnancy as an African American and twice as likely to have one’s child die during their first year of life.
In the Deep South, the death rates of black infants are as high as in Sub-Saharan Africa while the death rates of white infants in those same areas are near to zero.
It is also common for native women and some groups of Latinos to have high infant death rates as well. Time and time again, people of color are linked to poorer health and higher premature mortality rates compared to white people.
While socioeconomic factors, differences in education and lack of access to health care certainly play a role in causing these racial and ethnic disparities, these factors cannot explain the numbers alone, as one might easily believe. The health gap still remains after economic and educational factors are excluded. For example, the statistics surrounding maternal health are even worse when middle-class black women are compared to their white counterparts. Women of color who receive the right prenatal care still reflect the previously stated statistics.
There is also a larger difference in life expectancy between black and white people with college degrees than it is between black and white people with only high school degrees.
In fact, white high school dropouts have a longer life expectancy than black people with a college degree or higher.
It can, therefore, be concluded that there are large causes of these racial disparities beyond economic and educational differences.
Thus, researchers have turned to another factor: the impact that the experience of discrimination can have on people’s health. Both everyday racism and major experiences of discrimination are proven to be prominent causes of the health disparities which largely can be explained by looking at the physiological responses to racism.
An experience of discrimination, or worry about experiencing racism in a certain situation, typically leads to a stress response. That means that the body will send out stress hormones such as cortisol and that it will increase the heart rate and blood pressure. While this reaction is crucial for our survival, it can also get over-activated if it is triggered too often. When someone experiences racism on a daily basis, the constant stress response will damage the body significantly. Many of the most important parts of the brain become impaired, such as the prefrontal cortex which controls our personality and decision-making. Scientists have discovered this by studying the brain activity during exposure to discrimination, particularly through neuroimaging. Yin Paradis, a professor of race relations, explains the physical impact of racism:
“The emotional pain created by experiences of racism look very similar to the patterns of brain activity caused by physical pain. In this sense, suggesting that we can choose whether racism affects us is like saying that people can decide whether a slap across the face is painful or not. Beyond emotions and the brain, racism produces damage in other parts of the body such as the heart, immune system and metabolic system, extending even to our DNA.”
If you live in a more racist area, you are more likely to die younger than if you were to live in a less racist area, according to research. A study on black teenagers showed that those who experienced more discrimination than others turned out to have higher blood pressure and more stress hormones when they turned 20 years old. High blood pressure is particularly serious, as research in 2008 found that the blood pressure of those who experience racism don’t dip at night, which it should do. That is dangerous to the point where it can lead to a premature death as it greatly increases the risk of blood clots. Additionally, numerous studies have found that the stress caused by everyday experiences of African Americans often result in premature aging, meaning that one will age faster biologically than is natural. David R. Williams, a Harvard professor of public health and the leading researcher in the connection between race and health explains:
“The research indicates it is not just the big experiences of discrimination, like being passed over for a job or not getting a promotion that someone felt they might have been entitled to. But the day-to-day little indignities affect health: being treated with less courtesy than others, being treated with less respect than others, receiving poorer service at restaurants or stores. Research finds that persons who score high on those kinds of experiences, if you follow them over time, you see more rapid development of coronary heart disease. Research finds that pregnant women who report high levels of discrimination give birth to babies who are lower in birth weight.”
Implicit racial biases of medical and health care workers are also believed to play a role in these disparities. It is not that those workers are more racist than others, they simply share the implicit biases of the rest of the population. These forms of racial discrimination are not intentional but they can be equally damaging. That is yet another reason for how difficult it is to solve this problem; it appears impossible to completely erase the current health gap unless we combat racism as a whole. However, some efforts are being made to achieve greater health equity. There are for example successful programs that have created buffer zones from the daily discrimination and stress that many people face.
Nevertheless, these racial disparities are beyond tragic and are yet another example of the tremendous effect that racism has on people’s lives today. It ultimately shows us how serious frequent everyday racism should be taken, as it hurts people, not only mentally, but physically.
Photo: Piron Guillaume