Scientists study the biological effects of racism

Joy Nwagiriga

Racism is linked to the wear and tear of the body due to chronic stress, new research concludes. 

Scientists have found that racial discrimination is linked to allostatic load among African American women. Allostatic load refers to the long-term effects of continued exposure to chronic stress on the body

Researchers from the New York Academy of Sciences studying the health of minority groups say that racial discrimination should be a social determinant of health. 

Epidemiologist Esteban Burchard co-wrote a commentary in PLoS Medicine about the need for diversity in medical research. Burchard blames the failure to diversify studies on a system that distributes accountability across multiple scientific committees, leaving no one truly responsible for ensuring improvement.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, between 2013 and 2017, white patients in the US received better quality health care than about 34 per cent of Hispanic patients, 40 per cent of Black patients, and 40 per cent of Native American patients.

This study found that African American women report racial discrimination as a particularly salient and chronic psychosocial stressor over their lifetime. These racist events lead to the black women developing the superwoman schema (SWS) as a stress-coping mechanism.

The SWS is conceptualized to be a combination of stress, strength, emotional suppression and health. Scientists describe it as feeling an obligation to present an image of strength and an obligation to suppress emotions or vulnerability in the face of racial discrimination.

The study found that exhibiting strength has both health-protective and health-damaging properties. Previous research has found that anger is the most common response to racial discrimination and has further shown the detrimental effects of anger on health.

“I looked at it as a chronic stressor. Our results showed that racial discrimination appears to trigger an inflammatory response among African Americans at the cellular level,” said April Thames, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Scientists from USC and UCLA found that racist experiences appear to increase inflammation in African Americans. They established that inflammatory responses are heightened among people in socially marginalized, isolated groups.

“If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer,” said Steve Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women even at similar levels of income and education. 

Joy Nwagiriga