Science Says Sunday – Racism and Health

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 10.18.34 PMIt may come as a surprise to some, that scientists have documented the effects of racism on health outcomes. In fact, scientists have shown that racism can have significantly negative effects on a person’s health. Given the recent events we’ve experienced as a society, it’s important we cover just how racism affects the health of individuals who are on the receiving end of racism.

Science says that the impact of race on health stems largely from “differences in access to resources and opportunities that can hurt or enhance health”. These are systemic inequities that prevent individuals from equal access to health, resources, education, etc. that ensure they are secured with the best chance at good health. Scientists have also determined that racial and ethnic discrimination can not only have negative effects on health across the lifetime of individuals, but also across generations. Several studies have documented inequities in health outcomes, including some that are drastically persistent and significant.

For example, science says that some underrepresented groups (like blacks and hispanics) are at increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, low birth weight or premature birth and other serious conditions compared to non-black and non-hispanic individuals. Within the past few years, we have heard a lot about infant mortality in the news, and the fact that babies born to black mothers have been shown to be more than twice as likely  to die before reaching his or her first birthday as babies born to a white mother. Despite only recently making the news, these negative outcomes date back as far as 1950 in large published studies.

In 2010, social scientist, Dr. David R. Williams, shared a great review of what had been studied over the years in his article titled “Understanding Racial-Ethnic Disparities in Health: Sociological Contributions”, found here. Since then, numerous studies have documented the effects of racism on health, and some organizations have built archives of resources and scientific findings describing the associations between racism/discrimination and health. See an example list of those here.

In 2019, Dr. Williams published another article titled “Reducing Racial Inequities in Health: Using What We Already Know to Take Action”, where an overview of the scientific evidence pointing to critically needed steps to reduce racial inequities in health is presented.

“First, it argues that communities of opportunity should be developed to minimize some of the adverse impacts of systemic racism. These are communities that provide early childhood development resources, implement policies to reduce childhood poverty, provide work and income support opportunities for adults, and ensure healthy housing and neighborhood conditions. Second, the healthcare system needs new emphases on ensuring access to high quality care for all, strengthening preventive health care approaches, addressing patients’ social needs as part of healthcare delivery, and diversifying the healthcare work force to more closely reflect the demographic composition of the patient population. Finally, new research is needed to identify the optimal strategies to build political will and support to address social inequities in health. This will include initiatives to raise awareness levels of the pervasiveness of inequities in health, build empathy and support for addressing inequities, enhance the capacity of individuals and communities to actively participate in intervention efforts and implement large scale efforts to reduce racial prejudice, ideologies, and stereotypes in the larger culture that undergird policy preferences that initiate and sustain inequities.”

Recently, a colleague of mine, Dr. Chandra Ford, wrote a book titled “Racism: Science & Tools for the Public Health Professional”.

“This important publication builds on the racial health equity work that public health advocates and others have been doing for decades. They have documented the existence of health inequities and have combatted health inequities stemming from racism. This book, which targets racism directly and includes the word squarely in its title, marks an important shift in the field’s antiracism struggle for racial health equity. It is intended for use in a wide range of settings including health departments, schools, and in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors where public health professionals work. It will also benefit students still in training and will also serve as a practical reference text for courses and workshops. In this way, this book anticipates acting as a bridge connecting public health professionals, students, community members, as well as policymakers.”

The e-book is now available for purchase here.

Finally, Boston University Dean Dr. Sandro Galea gives a great talk on the “Healthiest Goldfish”, a story about story of Blind Willie Johnson, a blues singer who died in 1945.

While his cause of death was officially malaria, he actually died from the effects of racism and poverty, which created the conditions for his disease. Through his story, I argue that we cannot be healthy as a society until we have addressed the systemic racism that consigns so many people, like Blind Willie Johnson, to lives of poor health.

Finally, structural racism and inequities in the context of COVID-19. Data shows that blacks and hispanic are dying due to COVID-19 at disproportionate rates compared to non-blacks and non-hispanics in the US. Dr. Nancy Krieger is another scientist that has studied structural racism and its effects on health. Her lecture here, discusses the many ways structural racism negatively affects health and health outcomes. Most recently, she was part of a panel along with Dr. Mahassin Muhajid and Dr. Corinne Ridell.

Professor Nancy Krieger (Harvard, UCB Alum) along with Professors Mahasin Muhajid and Corinne Ridell (UCB) will engage in conversations about the impact of racial discrimination, social class and place on the excess disease and death rates from COVID19 among African American and other communities of color. The session will focus on some of the thorny issues related to collecting and analyzing relevant social data on COVID19; and also on advancing a social justice agenda in addressing racial/ethnic disparities in disease rates. The conversation will be moderated by Professor Rachel Morello-Frosch.

So how do we address racism as a society, so as to ensure better health for all? We start with ourselves, and address any actions that may inject racism into our communities and environments. Parade recently published “The Anti-Racist Starter Pack: 40 TV Series, Documentaries, Movies, TED Talks, and Books to Add to Your List“. Because many of my readers are avid Instagram users, here is a list of Instagram accounts you can follow as well.

To close, let me say that ending racism starts with us. With our children. With our loved ones. One small step can make a big difference. It is never too late to reflect, to assess ones own racism, and find ways to make a change. Start today.

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