Research News

Racial Disparities in America

IPR researchers examine myriad aspects, offer policy insights

In the same month that a grand jury decided not to indict a white 28-year-old police officer for fatally shooting an 18-year-old African American high school graduate in Ferguson, Mo., mostly white Utah voters elected the nation’s first African American, Mormon, Republican woman to the U.S. House of Representatives. These contrasting events offer but one immediate illustration of the complexity and promise inherent to understanding, and potentially addressing, racial issues in America.

Given the difficult history of U.S. race relations—and the ensuing, sometimes imperceptible, effects of race on individuals and society—a significant number of IPR faculty are studying the issue across a wide spectrum of topics, from examining the black/white/Latino test score gap to tracing how the human mind reacts to a person of a different race or ethnicity. While the questions are difficult and the answers never simple, IPR researchers always strive to conduct high-quality research, capable of informing meaningful dialogue and policy.

This article is being run as a two-part series in the Institute's e-news; however, the complete article is provided below for those who would like full access to all of the featured research. The first part of the series in December covered IPR research on interracial relations and racial disparities in health outcomes. The second, in January, will cover research on race, education, and neighborhoods.


Research on Interracial Relations

#Ferguson, #ICantBreathe, #TamirRice #BlackLivesMatter, #CrimingWhileWhite, and #AliveWhileBlack were just some of the Twitter hashtags appearing after recent events related to a highly publicized string of fatal encounters between white police officers and African American males. These exemplify the resulting dialogue and conflicts—in the streets across the country, on cable news networks, and of course, social media—that appeared and highlight some of the difficulties encountered by people of different racial groups when discussing racial inequality and bias. Understanding the dynamics of these types of interracial dialogues is one focus of IPR social psychologist Jennifer Richeson’s research.

Jennifer Richeson

Richeson and her collaborators take a unique approach to studying how members of the white majority group often experience interactions with racial minority group members. In addition to fielding more traditional psychological experiments, they have also employed brain scans with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess participants’ brain activity as a way to better understand the psychological processes involved when interacting across racial lines.

Some of her and her team’s recent studies point to disruptions in cognitive function, for both racial majority and minority group members, following an exchange with a person of a different race. For example, a recent experiment revealed that interacting with a white partner who displays relatively subtle signs of racial bias is more disruptive to blacks' and Latinos' cognitive function than interacting with a white partner who is more clearly biased. Their finding underscores the broad effects that racial bias can have, even when majority and minority group members have the best of intentions.

In work with IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam, Richeson has also found that whites who were concerned about appearing prejudiced exhibited raised levels of stress hormones and “anxious behavior”—for example, averting their eyes—when they interacted with someone of a different race. Such results are especially distressing because racial and ethnic minorities are likely to interpret such behaviors as “a sign of whites’ racial prejudice,” the researchers wrote.

If both parties in interracial interactions experience negative outcomes, then how can one make these experiences more positive for everyone involved? Richeson’s research also investigates ways to foster positive interracial relations, from investigating “motivational mindsets” to urging participants in interracial interactions to contemplate the psychological experiences of the people in conversation with them.

“Maybe entering interracial interactions with a focus on, 'What can I learn?' rather than trying to avoid appearing prejudiced or being targeted, will make these encounters less stressful, less cognitively draining, and, hopefully, more productive," Richeson said.

Research on Racial Disparities in Education

In 2001, the wealth of white households was nearly 18 times that of black households. Meanwhile, the black-white gap in high school completion rate—just one measure of educational attainment—has narrowed since 1991.

These two high schools demonstrate the wide gaps in educational attainment—and subsequently, opportunity—that exist between students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds in America. IPR researchers have examined various education interventions designed to help narrow such gaps, from quality preschools and small class sizes to high school placement exams and barriers to college.

lindsay chase-lansdale
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale

High-quality preschool programs have been shown to improve children’s reading and math scores in the short-term, as well as their success in the long run—for example, by increasing their lifetime earnings. These programs are especially beneficial for children from lower-income families. In addition to benefiting the youngest of students, a recent line of IPR research examines how early childhood education programs can have an impact on parents.

Take Head Start, for example. IPR developmental psychologists Terri Sabol and Lindsay Chase-Lansdale analyzed data from the Head Start Impact Study, a congressionally mandated randomized trial that followed more than 4,000 participants in Head Start programs through third grade. They observed that parents of 3-year-olds in Head Start advanced their own education, compared with parents of children not enrolled in Head Start. By the time their children reached age 6, African American parents were the most likely to see an increase in their education as a result of their children's participation in Head Start, compared with parents in all other racial/ethnic groups. Additionally, Chase-Lansdale and Sabol, along with IPR Senior Research Scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer, have been part of a national effort to study and pilot two-generation interventions, which offer education and job training, as well as financial and career guidance for parents and early high-quality education for their children up to age 6.

Dissecting data from the Project Star class-size experiment in Tennessee, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach finds that smaller, better-resourced elementary school classes of around 15 students benefit disadvantaged black students twice as much as white students. A later study suggests that small class size continues to have an effect well into adulthood with Project Star alumni earning more, saving more, and more likely to be employed. Additionally, the black students randomly assigned to smaller classes in the Tennessee experiment were twice as likely to go college, with a boost of 11 percentage points amongst black students who were less likely to enroll in the first place.

In addition to early education interventions, IPR faculty are also looking at programs that can benefit underprivileged high school students. IPR economist Jonathan Guryan is currently investigating an intervention that could help disadvantaged high schoolers, who are disproportionately from low-income and minority groups, stay on track to graduate. He and his colleagues are working with a group of mostly African American teens in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), fielding a project combining principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and individualized academic tutoring. The program’s benefits were equivalent to closing nearly two-thirds of the average gap in math test scores between white and black students—the equivalent of what the average American high school student learns in math over three years.

IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson has several lines of research investigating high school level factors at play, including single-sex and selective schools, teacher quality, and pay-for-performance incentives. He analyzed a Texas-based program that provides cash incentives to students and teachers when students pass Advanced Placement (AP) exams. The program focuses specifically on schools that serve low-SES and minority populations. After schools implemented it, Jackson found that more students enrolled in AP courses and took AP exams—particularly black and Hispanic students. Students also achieved higher SAT and ACT scores, and more of them enrolled in college. The program also boosted teacher effort, and, as a consequence of teacher effort, the quality of instruction.

Mesmin Destin
Mesmin Destin

Once minority students enter college, there are still more barriers to their success. In particular, first-generation college students receive lower grades and are more likely to drop out than those who have at least one parent with a 4-year college degree (continuing-generation students). This gap exists even when first-generation students are otherwise academically equal to their continuing-generation peers; it is the college context itself that impairs their performance. But remedying this issue can be as simple as participating in a one-hour program, according to IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin.

In Destin’s study, first- and continuing-generation students attended a program welcoming new students to a university. The program included a discussion where a diverse panel of college seniors relayed how their backgrounds affected their college experiences. The first-generation students who attended the panel not only reduced the achievement gap between themselves and students with a college-educated parent by 63 percent, but they also experienced less stress and anxiety, adjusted better to college life, and were more academically and socially engaged than those in the control group.

As the nation’s population grows more diverse, many institutions of higher learning will continue to remain interested in diversifying their student body by considering race in the admissions process. Yet several recent challenges to race-conscious affirmative action programs, such as the Supreme Court's decision in April to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college and university admissions, serve to highlight how controversial they remain. Despite the intensity of the debate, surprisingly little is known about how such policies came to be. IPR sociologist Anthony S. Chen and his collaborators have been exploring a wide range of archival manuscripts to understand why American colleges and universities adopted affirmative action in the first place. Their evidence challenges the still-popular idea that the initial advent of affirmative action was primarily a response to campus unrest or urban riots during the late 1960s. They find that affirmative action actually originated in the early 1960s, as key numbers of college and university leaders drew inspiration from the civil rights movement and began seek out new ways of making racial integration a reality at the Northern, Midwestern, and Western schools over which they presided.

Research on Racial Disparities in Health

Beyond racial disparities in education and the difficulties in race relations, a distinguishing direction for IPR research deals with health disparities across race and socioeconomic status that can undermine a person’s health and ultimately, their potential throughout their life. As an African American male, for example, Michael Brown was statistically 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease, nearly twice as likely to die from diabetes, and five times as likely to die from gun violence than a white male.

quincy thomas stewart
Quincy Thomas Stewart

Studies by IPR social demographer Quincy Thomas Stewart highlight these racial disparities in mortality across the life course. In one project, he is examining significant racial disparities in hypertension, one of the leading causes of death for blacks. Using data from two linked mortality databases, he and his colleague analyze the relationship between race, hypertension, and hypertension related death. Preliminary results reveal that blacks are significantly more likely to die of hypertension than whites, and the increased mortality rate is only partially related to pre-existing high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes, among others. The results suggest statistical discrimination in cause-of-death diagnoses, meaning that similar blacks and whites receive different death diagnoses.

Starting at the other end of the life cycle, IPR biological anthropologist Christopher Kuzawa has examined how self-perceived discrimination, racism, chronic stress, and other social influences affect racial health disparities in cardiovascular disease. He notes that all of these factors, when experienced by a woman during pregnancy, can have adverse effects on the health of her offspring that persist into late life. He and fellow researchers, including Emma Adam and biological anthropologist Thomas McDade, are tracing the biophysical consequences of discrimination and racism from birth into adulthood, and even across generations. Secondary to eliminating racism altogether, Kuzawa recommends increasing public spending to improve pregnant women’s access to prenatal care and nutrition, and to ensure they suffer less-stressful pregnancies.

edith chen
Edith Chen

In another study, a team of researchers including McDade and Adam examine links between breast-feeding, birth weight, and chronic inflammation—an indicator of increased risk for heart attack and diabetes—for nearly 7,000 24- to 32-year-olds. Using National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) data, the researchers uncover dramatic disparities. More educated mothers, whites, and Hispanics were more likely to breast-feed. Lower birth weights and shorter periods of breast-feeding predicted higher inflammation levels in young adults, and thus higher disease risk. The research indicates that efforts to promote breast-feeding and improve birth outcomes might have clinically relevant effects on reducing levels of chronic inflammation and lowering risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in adulthood.

Examining experiences beyond infancy, research by Adam shows that a person’s perceptions of being exposed to racial and ethnic discrimination during adolescence might have ongoing effects on stress biology and health into adulthood. Adam and her colleagues are using a detailed bank of information collected over 20 years from adolescence to early adulthood, adding recently gathered stress and health biomarker data, to better understand the effects of such histories of exposure. The study also includes a time-diary component to capture how perceptions of daily discrimination relate to stress and sleep quality and an experimental protocol to examine how the participants physically react to race-related stress. Initial results reveal that being African American and having a cumulative history of feeling discriminated against are associated with flatter and lower cortisol diurnal rhythms, a sign of chronic stress, in early adulthood. For African American participants only, experiences of discrimination in adolescence were particularly strongly related to altered cortisol patterns in adulthood.

Despite the odds stacked against them, why is it that some members of disadvantaged groups still manage to succeed? IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller evaluated resilient African American adolescents living in the rural South to see how their “efforts to beat the odds” affected the amount of physiological wear and tear on their bodies. They discovered that, by age 19, these adolescents—who did well in school, had good mental health, and stayed out of trouble with the law—also exhibited more serious physical health risks, such as higher rates of blood pressure and obesity. In other words, their positive attitude and accomplishments might mask these “hidden indicators” of bad health, rendering their resilience “skin deep.” In another study, Chen and Miller studied an intervention program for African American families from low-SES backgrounds in rural Georgia. By teaching parents how to mentor their 11- and 12-year-old children, it seems to help moderate some of the costs of resilience 8 to 9 years later.

Research on Racial Disparities and Neighborhoods

Ferguson is situated within the St. Louis metropolitan area, one of the most segregated regions in the country. IPR sociologist Lincoln Quillian has studied many aspects of how segregation can shape educational and life outcomes.

lincoln quillian
Lincoln Quillian

In a recent article, he found that more segregated metropolitan areas had lower high school graduation rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, yet rates for students from advantaged backgrounds remained the same. This suggests that for education, “Segregation increases the disadvantage of disadvantaged groups without increasing the advantage of advantaged groups." While school reform is important to reduce gaps, Quillian’s research concludes that neighborhood conditions must also be addressed to affect more powerful changes.

Additionally, increased segregation is linked to higher rates of incarceration as several studies by political scientist and IPR associate Traci Burch have shown. In a recent article analyzing data from 5,000 North Carolina neighborhoods, she traced how high numbers of jailed individuals in a single neighborhood can adversely affect many neighborhood aspects—from increasing crime and poverty to reducing voter participation and civic engagement. Overall, a neighborhood in a highly segregated county would have twice the number of residents locked up as compared with those living in a county with far less segregation.

While many studies of segregation focus on low-SES neighborhoods, sociologist and African American studies researcher and IPR associate Mary Pattillo’s research centers on middle-class African American neighborhoods. Though middle-class blacks have more advantages than poor blacks, they nevertheless live in areas with more crime, poverty, unemployment, fewer college graduates, more vacant homes, and more single-parent families than do middle-class whites—and even poor whites, Pattillo has found. Her results point to discrimination in the housing market as a factor in blacks’ decision to remain in less integrated neighborhoods, despite a willingness to move. Pointing to a link between middle-class black neighborhoods and “the preferences and behaviors of whites,” she argues that more progress must be made to change whites’ preferences and behaviors as a way to increase mobility and integration.

IPR political scientist Wesley Skogan has a significant body of work examining how police and communities can collaborate to improve neighborhoods, including a 2012 study of 279 Chicago police beats showing how community beat meetings might have played a role in decreasing neighborhood crime rates in mostly poor, African American neighborhoods in the city. Skogan also studies how people react to a police presence in their neighborhoods. In an earlier study from 2008, he analyzed reports of police misconduct in Washington, D.C., a city that is 50 percent black according to the 2010 census. He and his colleagues found that young black men were more likely than others to report that they had been stopped by the police. Forty-three percent of 18- to 29-year-old black males had been stopped while driving during the previous year, compared with 18 percent of young white males. Blacks were about twice as likely as whites to believe that the city’s police stop too many people without good reason, that they are too tough on those they stop, and that they are verbally or physically abusive toward citizens. Class also shaped views of police misconduct, with less-educated respondents more likely to believe it was a problem in their neighborhoods. These results, Skogan writes, highlight a “continued division among blacks and whites over policing.”