Racism's Chronic Stress Likely Contributes To Health Disparities, Scientists Say : Shots - Health News The biological effects of lifelong exposure to racism or other sorts of discrimination can be complicated, scientists say, but likely tap into the same mechanisms as other types of chronic stress.
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Scientists Start To Tease Out The Subtler Ways Racism Hurts Health

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Scientists Start To Tease Out The Subtler Ways Racism Hurts Health

Scientists Start To Tease Out The Subtler Ways Racism Hurts Health

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Roughly a third of Latinos in America report they've experienced discrimination in their daily lives, according to a poll recently released by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That number is important as scientists begin to learn more about how racism affects people's health and their longevity. Reporter Rae Ellen Bichell has this next story in our series You, Me and Them.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable - but not for the right reasons.

ROBERTO MONTENEGRO: I still cringe when I think about it.

BICHELL: His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his wife out to a fancy restaurant. They were celebrating his new Ph.D. in sociology, and he was about to head to medical school. He was legit.

MONTENEGRO: We laughed, and we ate, and we were excited we didn't have to pay for this.

BICHELL: When they got in line for the valet, a really nice car pulled up to the curb. A woman got out and walked past the other couples in line, Montenegro says. And...

MONTENEGRO: She gets to me, and she hands me her keys.

BICHELL: She assumed he was a valet.

MONTENEGRO: I vividly remember turning red, and I don't often turn red. And I remember my heart pounding. I remember feeling really confused and hurt and angry.

BICHELL: Five minutes later, still waiting for his car, it happened again.

MONTENEGRO: And even now, reliving that story, it's uncomfortable.

BICHELL: This was not the first or the last time he'd encounter racism. At conferences, colleagues would accidentally try to order drinks from him. As a medical student, people at the hospital would sometimes mistake him for a technician or a janitor, even when he was wearing his white doctor's coat.

MONTENEGRO: That happens to me so much.

BICHELL: Montenegro's experiences might not sound like a big deal, but a group of researchers thinks that being discriminated against over and over again could actually hurt a person's health.

AMANI NURU-JETER: When you start to worry about something - whether that's race or something else - then that initiates a biological stress response.

BICHELL: That's a Amani Nuru-Jeter, a social epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley. She and Dr. Montenegro - who's now a fellow in child psychiatry at Seattle Children's Hospital - are trying to understand what discrimination can actually do to your body. That night people assumed Montenegro was a valet...

MONTENEGRO: Turning red and my heart pounding.

BICHELL: ...Those are signs his body was stressed, cranking up the levels of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Those hormones can be really helpful for gearing up to fight or to flee, but it's not good if they linger.

NURU-JETER: For example, one of the things we're finding in my research is that this process of racism stress is associated with kind of chronic low-grade inflammation.

BICHELL: And that, says Nuru-Jeter, could put someone at a higher risk for something like heart disease. Other studies have found associations between racist experiences and things like sleep problems or even asthma. Researchers like Nuru-Jeter hypothesize that the stress of repeatedly being singled out as the other can be biologically damaging and might be responsible, in part, for health disparities in America, like the gap in life expectancy between black and white Americans.

NURU-JETER: Prolonged elevation, circulation of these stress hormones in our bodies can be very toxic and compromise our body's ability to regulate key biological systems. So it just gets us really out of whack and leaves us susceptible to a bunch of poor health outcomes.

BICHELL: Now, this kind of research is really complicated. There's no thermometer for racism. And it's not like scientists can take a group of people, expose them to discrimination and then see how they do compared to everyone else. So researchers find associations, not causations.

But sometimes, they get a slightly sharper glimpse of how discrimination and poor health might be related, like on May 12, 2008, when, as the AP reported, a small army descended onto a town in Iowa.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Federal agents raided this meatpacking plant in Iowa on Monday after...

BICHELL: Nine hundred agents with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raided a meat processing plant. They were looking for people who are working illegally in the U.S. They reportedly handcuffed almost everyone who looked Latino and ended up arresting more than a tenth of the town's population, charging many of them with felonies for knowingly working under false Social Security numbers, even though few were reportedly guilty of that crime.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In all, more than 300 people were loaded onto buses and taken away.

BICHELL: Arline T. Geronimus, a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, has studied the episode.

ARLINE T. GERONIMUS: The news of this raid and pictures were pretty frightening because there were these helicopters, and it was such a military zone. And then they had - you know, handcuffing all the employees who were assumed to be Latino.

BICHELL: It was an extremely stressful event for the people who got arrested and their families. But the event appears to have had a ripple effect throughout the state. As Geronimus and her colleagues wrote this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology, after the raid, Latina women living in Iowa started giving birth to smaller babies.

GERONIMUS: Pregnant women of Latino descent throughout the state of Iowa experienced, on average, about a 24 percent greater risk of their babies being born low birth weight than they had in that very same period of time the previous year.

BICHELL: Babies born small are at higher risk of dying in infancy and of having health problems later on. Before the raid, Latina women in Iowa didn't have a higher risk of low birth weight than white women did.

GERONIMUS: But there is a spike that happens to be exactly when the raid was.

BICHELL: A spike in that rate that even affected babies born to Latina moms who were U.S. citizens, people who shouldn't have been worried about being arrested or deported.

GERONIMUS: The trends are so stark.

BICHELL: Other researchers have noticed a connection between experiencing stressful events like natural disasters and babies being born pre-term or low birth weight. Geronimus thinks, in this case, it has something to do with the stress of racism. And if that's true, it means the stress of discrimination can set the stage for health problems before a person has even entered the world.

For NPR News, I'm Rae Ellen Bichell.

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