Yes, Racism is a Public Health Risk

Racism ain't just about hurting people's feelings.

By Jamilah King Mar 12, 2013

There’s been lots of talk nationally about Stop-and-Frisk, the New York Police Department’s controversial policing tactic. On Monday, the issue is set to finally go to court, where critics will argue that it infringes on people’s constitutional rights. Over at the Atlantic, doctoral student Jason Silverstein lays out a compelling case that racism — or, in this case, the racial profiling that critics of Stop-and-Frisk say are central to the way it’s implemented — doesn’t just make people feel bad, but that’s actually bad for people’s bodies.

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’s a really intriguing read, an important one. See the whole thing at The Atlantic.