Racism's Physical Impact What contributes to the links between race and the shortened life expectancy of black men? And what makes a difference in changing black men's lives? Vickie Mays is director of the UCLA Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities. The center has been researching the body's physiological response to racism.
NPR logo

Racism's Physical Impact

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14773030/14773019" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Racism's Physical Impact

Racism's Physical Impact

Racism's Physical Impact

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14773030/14773019" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

What contributes to the links between race and the shortened life expectancy of black men? And what makes a difference in changing black men's lives? Vickie Mays is director of the UCLA Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities. The center has been researching the body's physiological response to racism.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Many of us have heard about the links between race and the shortened life expectancy of black men. But what lies behind the numbers and what makes a difference in changing black men's lives.

To help us dig into the issues, we've got psychologist Vickie Mays. She's the director of the UCLA Center on Research Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities.

Thanks for coming on.

Dr. VICKIE MAYS (Director, UCLA Center on Research Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities; Professor, Psychology, University of California): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Well, Vickie, what do we know about the problem of health disparities among black men?

Dr. MAYS: We're at a stage where what we know is that they definitely exist. We're not trying to prove them any longer because when we look at life expectancy, despite the fact that many African-American men are moving up in the economic and social ladder, they're still not living that long.

I mean, it's pretty sad that an African-American man born in 1999 is expected to live to be 68. But, yet, a white man, born in that same time, is expected to live to be 75.

CHIDEYA: So what are we talking about with causes or possible causes?

Dr. MAYS: There's a range of things. And - I mean, there's the typical suspects where we talk about not enough exercise, diet, and things like that. But what we find is that there are individuals who are dieting, who have, you know, great exercise habits, and still seem to die early.

And so some of us have started asking this question of why is it that for African-American men, despite the fact that they may have all kind of life stresses in comparison to other ethnic groups who have those same life stresses, that they live longer and African-American don't?

One of the factors that we're starting to really pay attention to it is that of race-based discrimination. Race-based discrimination is something that when you think about it, it's all those little subtle things that happen every day - the feeling that, you know, someone's following you in the store, the feeling that, you know, you get passed over for a job, the feeling that, you know, despite all your best efforts, someone is looking at you as being less than, not equal to, they treat you differently, badly, unfairly.

CHIDEYA: So how does that translate in the body, that kind of generalized stress?

Dr. MAYS: Well, what happens - and, you know, you can kind of think about this in lots of ways - but, for example, if you feel that someone is treating you differently like, you know, when we think about that, what you'll find is that even though the incident occurred at that moment, later you're still telling somebody about it. You're still upset about it.

And what happens in the body is that your brain perceives that there is a problem. It perceives that there is danger - a threat that something is going to put you at peril. And then what happens is your body - and this is, you know, really back from more evolutionary times where, you know, we had to worry about being eaten by lions, and bears, and tigers, and things like that. But it's still the same principle of the body experiences a threat. When it experiences that sense of threat or something that is putting its survival at risk, it then goes into a mode where it gives you, for example, all the things that you would need to do to fight a big fight.

Well, race - we've underestimated race-based discrimination, and the extent to which, when we experience it, it really is pretty serious. And it puts the body on this alert. And, you know, asking African-American men what they feel, for example, when they see a police car; what they feel, for example, when they walk into an environment and people are looking at them as if they don't belong there - it begins to cause the body to respond in a way in which, if something is going to happen, you feel your heart race sometime, you feel clenching in your teeth, in your hands, you know? What your body is doing is giving you this extra incentive to pay attention, be hyper alert, and to protect yourself.

CHIDEYA: But given that, you know, those stresses might be chronic, what can an individual do to, say, you know what, maybe I am stressed out and - you know, and there are real causes, but I'm not going to have a stroke because of this. What can someone do if they recognize that?

Dr. MAYS: Part of what we're trying to do is to really learn about the ways in which when the brain notices this threat - we call it self-appraisal - so when the brain notices this threat, it's, like, to help individuals, first and foremost, to understand how responsive do I need to be. It's one thing to see the police, you know, pull up, and it's another thing for me to have someone following me around in a store. But we have to really help people to kind of get a sense of responding at a level that may be more commiserate with this sense of threat.

The second thing is really to get - what we're learning about in the brain is a little bit of how it is that certain interventions - and those are things like meditation, mindfulness - you will hear people say, oh, you should do a tai chi and yoga and all these things. There are ways in which it really changes the brain, and it gets the brain to go to a place where it actually can relax, recharge itself.

With African-Americans, who are experiencing this race-based discrimination, may need to have that recharge a little bit more. And so we need to figure out some of the ways that that can be done. There are simple things like affirmation. There are other things like thinking - and this really, you know, some people want to, you know, probably challenge us a little bit, but there is something that happens when people go to a spiritual place. So sometimes prayer for some people, for some people it's meditation, but there is a spiritual place that we can go to.

And those are things that you can do in your life over time to help you to reduce your stress and to help you kind of have a sense of being able to meet challenges in a way in which those challenges don't involve your whole body responding in a full-pressed physiological response to incidents. So it's a lot of training that, I think, would help in terms of bringing people back to that place where, okay, I see this. I'm not stroking out over this.

CHIDEYA: Finally, quickly, are you also reaching out to try to educate health care providers?

Dr. MAYS: Oh, without a doubt. That is primary for us. We've just started talking to individuals in - who are running primary care practices to really think about giving advice that has to do with noticing race-based stress and coming up with some interventions to reduce that.

CHIDEYA: Well, Vickie, thanks so much.

Dr. MAYS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Psychologist Vickie Mays directs the UCLA Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.