Research News

Racial Disparities in America | Part I

IPR researchers examine interracial relations, health disparities and 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.

The first part of the series is below and covers IPR research on interracial relations and racial disparities in health outcomes. The second 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 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.

edith chen
Edith Chen

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.

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.

For additional IPR research on the topic, including on racial disparities in education and neighborhoods, read more here.