How Racism Is Bad for Our Bodies (Participation)

How Racism Is Bad for Our Bodies

By Jason Silverstein

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


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.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers had each Latina student prepare a three-minute speech on “what I am like as a work partner” for their white partner. But before each student gave her speech, she read her partner’s responses — and, among other things, knew if the person evaluating her speech held racist beliefs. To monitor stress during the speech, the researchers hooked the speakers up to blood pressure cuffs and sensors to measure other cardiovascular data, including an electrocardiogram and impedance cardiography.

When Latina participants thought they were interacting with a racist white partner, they had higher blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and shorter pre-ejection periods. What this shows is an increased sympathetic response, or what is often called the “fight or flight response.” Merely the anticipation of racism, and not necessarily the act, is enough to trigger a stress response. And this study only involved a three-minute speech.

What if someone feels she lives under the constant threat of racism? This is the implication for racial profiling. Stop-and-frisk policies do not only affect the people who come into contact with law enforcement. They also affect the people who fear they could be next.

In addition to battling the constitutional impact of Stop and Frisk as co-counsel in Floyd v. New York, the Center for Constitutional Rights released the report, “Stop and Frisk — The Human Impact: The Stories Behind the Numbers, the Effects on our Communities.” The report summarizes 54 interviews with people who have been stopped and frisked — and what it meant for them emotionally and physically. It tells alarming stories about inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, threats, and humiliation. And it also connects us with the Sawyer team’s study on anticipating prejudice.

“The scale and scope of stop-and-frisk practices in communities of color have left many residents feeling that they are living under siege,” the CCR authors write. When we read the NYCLU’s 2012 report on Stop and Frisk, it is easy to see why. In 2011, there were 685,724 stops. In 70 of 76 precincts, greater than 50 percent of stops targeted blacks and Latinos. In 33 precincts, that number skyrockets to over 90 percent. Perhaps most shockingly, the number of stops of young black men (168,126) actually exceeded the number of young black men in New York City (158,406).

However, supporters of Stop and Frisk argue that it is an effective crime control tool and, if you want to avoid a stop, then do not commit a crime. The problem is that 90 percent of black and Latino men stopped were innocent. What might this mean in terms of heightened vigilance and stress? Not only must black and Latino people in New York anticipate acts of prejudice from the police, but they also must know innocence does not reduce the risk of harassment.

These are ways that discrimination becomes embodied during one person’s life. But no person discriminated against is an island. When conditions of social injustice affect this many people, and prompt poor health outcomes, risk passes down generations. And this damage isn’t going away any time soon. Even in the absence of discrimination, Nancy Krieger argues that populations “would continue to exhibit persistent disparities reflecting prior inequities.”

“At a time when the first generation of African Americans born in the post-Jim Crow Era is only 40 years old,” Krieger wrote in 2005, “it is probably not accidental that current life expectancy among African Americans resembles that of White Americans 40 years ago.”

Racial profiling should be considered a social determinant of health, because it exposes people to discrimination and the fear of discrimination. Race may be a social construct, but racism materializes in poor health.


6 thoughts on “How Racism Is Bad for Our Bodies (Participation)

  1. I think this is an ongoing chain. It is very true that minority groups which include African Americans and Latinos like me have so much stress in their lives. To start of like we have talked about in class most African Americans and Latinos can’t afford health insurance. Those minority groups tend to eat unhealthy foods and tend to have higher rates of diseases than Americans. I really do believe that racism is bad for our health. Minority groups are always worrying about one thing or another. We as Latinos worry about all the bills, how long were going to have our job, what we’re going to do when we don’t have a job, and many more things. You could almost say that our brain never stops working, there is always something there. Thinking about racism is something even worse, something that makes us feel awful. And most of the time those things that deal with racism are thoughts and memories that stay in your head and in your mind for a really long time. Usually other things or problems you forget about once they get resolved but those that include racism are in you for a much longer time and some you just never completely forget about. All illegal Latinos that are living in the U.S. don’t even get rest just thinking about what is going to happen that day. They are thinking 24/7 about what would happen if they get deported especially those that have children. Those Latinos that are not living here legally are stressed and depressed all the time. Since Latinos have very low skilled jobs and most are outside in the fields and orchards that also causes them to get common colds more often than white Americans and African Americans. So everything connected with one another. Having racism in our environment causes and leads to minorities having high blood pressure, pre-term deliveries, common colds, and stress. So as long as there is racism this ongoing chain is going to continue and our kids are going to live this just the way we Latinos are living it now.

  2. Stop-and-frisk not only produces negative health effects but illustrates the racial stereotyping very much present in America. The police force targets blacks and Latinos because they are the racial groups that are usually depicted as causing crime when as the statistics show that this is very untrue! 90% of the black and Latino men stopped are innocent and yet they are still targeted. Racial equality is still an ongoing issue in America and the proof is in the health stats. Minority groups are less likely to get jobs than whites, get paid less than white people doing the same job… This means that minorities are more likely to be at a lower socioeconomic status than whites which has been directly correlated to worse health than people of a higher SES. This stupid policy is just one of the many examples of racial inequality and stereotyping plaguing America today.

  3. I found this article very interesting, as I had previously only thought of the legal implications of the NYPDs “stop and frisk” program, never the health side. In my mind, the only possible health side effect of “stop and frisk” would have been possible harm to the suspect in the course of detention or arrest. It is surprising, but makes sense, that people constantly under the pressure and stress of racial profiling face more stress related problems than those not confronted with racial profiling.
    The stop and frisk policy (officially) requires officers to first reasonably suspect a person of committing a crime (reasonable suspicion is defined as when a police officer notices articulable facts about an individual that lead him/her to believe that a crime has been or is being committed) and then when confronting that person, believes that the suspect is armed with a weapon in order to conduct a weapons search of their person (frisk). The fact that 90% of black/latinos stopped were not committing any crime and had no illegal weapons on them immediately shows that the practices of the program are not within the letter of the law and obviously show both a bias as well as an ineffective practice overall.
    I think that should the program actually be implemented the way it was written, where the officer must actually believe a crime is/has been committed for the stop portion and actually believes that the suspect has a weapon for the frisk portion, the program may have been a good aggressive tactic in reducing crime. However, merely using a “suspicious person or circumstances” as justification for the stop, leads to many false alarms as well as the possibility for a bias in stopping certain people, as is the case here.
    Both the legal and health implications of these illegal and ineffective stops lead me to question the existence of the program, and believe it may be disallowed in the future after it’s time in court.

  4. When it comes to the stop-and-frisk law a lot of stereotypes and racial profiling happen to who the police see as potential or suspicious suspects. From what I see and believe I think that most of the suspects that are targeted are minorities. A lot of the times these victims that are stopped are innocent but still to society they see minorities as a major percentage of crime in the United States. As far as it goes about the health side I think it affects you because you’re constantly stressed about worrying about being harassed by the police. That’s why I believe that racism harms health. It’s been shown that being a minority leads to more stress. When people feel stressed most of the time it leads to people doing drugs and drinking just to cope with the discomfort. This is bad because if the person is facing racism on an everyday basis then what are they going to continue to do run to drugs and drinking. This habit can really harm a person health. At the end of the day I feel and agree with that racial profiling should be considered as a social determinant of health. The reason I agree is because it’s not good for a person to constantly fear facing racism on an everyday base it will slowly damage someone’s health in the long run.

  5. Recently, racism is really a big problem in the society of America. Black people (African American) can be said that stay the bottom of society. They are subject to racial discrimination and hold a low-income. Because of this reason, some black people will do some bad things to the community which give vent to their discontent. That is the reason why blacks have higher rates of violent crime.

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