The Impact of Racism on Black Men’s Health
An excerpt from FEELING THE STRAIN: The Impact of Stress on the Health of African-American Men (2009)
Although it has been known for decades that there is no biological basis for race, genetic theories of health disparities continue to be used by some scientists to influence research studies. It is therefore important to continue to emphasize the pivotal role played by social factors, particularly racism, in producing health inequities. The following is an excerpt from a policy brief that considers the impact of racism on the health of African-American men.
African-American males have the highest mortality rate and lowest life expectancy among men and women in all other racial or ethnic groups in the United States. It has been noted that the mortality rates of urban African-American men are comparable to those of men in developing countries (Furumoto-Dawson et al., 2007).
Why do African-American men experience these huge inequalities in relation to their physical health? An important but often overlooked issue is the role of stress as a factor in the health status of African-American men. Accordingly, this policy brief uses a “social determinants of stress” approach to demonstrate that stress emanating from societal factors is detrimental to the health of African-American men.
African-American men are particularly vulnerable to stress due to historical and ongoing racial discrimination and related issues, namely low socioeconomic status and incarceration. In their study on African-American men’s perceptions of health, Ravenell and colleagues (2006) found that across all groups of African-American men, stress was cited as having a significant negative impact on both physical and mental health.
While stress is not harmful for brief periods, if stress is chronic or cumulative, individuals become more vulnerable to a number of health problems and diseases including infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and cancer (See WHO, 2003; Paradies, 2004). This is because the stress response diverts energy and resources away from physiological processes which are important to long-term health (WHO, 2003).
Stressors associated with racial discrimination
In recent years, research has increasingly pointed to a link between racial discrimination and physical health (See for example, Read & Emerson 2005; Taylor, Williams, & Makambi et al., 2007). Mays, Cochran & Barnes (2006) describe how repetitive experiences of discrimination, both actual and perceived may bring about physiological responses (e.g. elevated blood pressure and heart rate) that eventually result in disease and mortality. Geronimus et al. (2006) note:
The stress inherent in living in a race-conscious society that stigmatizes and disadvantages African Americans may cause disproportionate physiological deterioration, such that an African-American individual may show the morbidity and mortality typical of a White individual who is significantly older. Not only do African Americans experience poor health at earlier ages than do Whites, but this deterioration in health accumulates, producing ever-greater racial inequality in health with age through middle adulthood.
To be sure, racial discrimination can affect African-American men in a number of ways. African-American men must navigate a society that often sees them in a negative light; they must cope with the microaggressions (Pierce, 1970) that are an integral part of the African-American male experience. Additionally, African-American men are faced with institutional biases which impact their lives on just about every level, including reduced employment prospects, reduced promotion prospects, poor quality education, poor neighborhood conditions, and disproportionate rates of incarceration.
Read the full policy brief here
Furumoto-Dawson, A., Gehlert, S., Sohmer, D., Olopade, O., & Sacks, T. (2007). Early-life conditions and mechanisms of population health vulnerabilities. Health Affairs, 26 (5), 1238–1248.
Mays, V.M., Cochran, S.D. & Barnes, N.W. (2007). Race, race-based discrimination, and health outcomes among African Americans. Annual Review of Psychology, 58 (1), 201–25.
Paradies, Y. (2004). A Review of the Relationship between Psychosocial Stress and Chronic Disease for Indigenous and African American Peoples. Retrieved: October 5th, 2008, from http://www.crcah.org.au/publications/downloads/A_Review_of_the_Relationship.pdf
Pierce, C. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. Barbour (Ed.), The Black Seventies (pp. 265–282). Boston: Porter Sargent.
Ravenell, J.E., Johnson, W.E. Jr., & Whitaker, E.E. (2006). African-American men’s perceptions of health: a focus group study. The Journal of the National Medical Association, 98(4), 544–50.
Read, J.G. & Emerson, M.O. (2005). Racial context, Black immigration and the U.S. Black/White health disparity. Social Forces, 84, 181–199.
Taylor, T.R., Williams, C.D., Makambi, K.H., Mouton, C. , Harrell, J. P., Cozier, Y., Palmer, J. R., Rosenberg , L., & Adams-Campbell, L.L. (2007). Racial discrimination and breast cancer incidence in U.S. Black women: the Black Women’s Health Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 166, 46–54.
World Health Organization (2003). Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts. Retrieved: December 14th, 2008, from http://www.euro.who.int/document/e81384.pdf