Obviously, deeply ingrained racial inequality has a wide range of consequences here in the United States. Some of them, like issues of criminal justice and voting rights, are perhaps more starkly evident than others. But racial divides also impact other areas that haven’t traditionally been associated with civil rights. Structures of racism and privilege continue to put a serious toll on the African American community’s health — and contribute to the fact that black Americans are still dying younger than white Americans. Here’s why racism is a serious public health issue:
Racial discrimination puts black Americans at risk for long-term health problems.
According to a new study, black teens who experience racial discrimination in adolescence are more likely to develop stress-related health issues that could put them at risk for chronic diseases later in life. Specifically, researchers found that they were more likely to have higher levels of blood pressure, a higher body mass index, and higher levels of stress-related hormones once they turned 20. The psychological toll that racism takes on adults has also been well-documented, and racial discrimination has been repeatedly linked to high blood pressure. Just the fear of racial discrimination can trigger stress-related responses, which means that many people of color who live within a society defined by racism are constantly under increased biological stressors.
The majority of doctors harbor “unconscious racial biases” toward their black patients.
A 2012 study found that about two-thirds of primary care doctors harbor biases toward their African-American patients, leading those doctors to spend less time with their black patients and involve them less in medical decisions. Although doctors typically aren’t aware that they’re treating African-American patients any differently, this ultimately creates an environment in which black people often don’t feel welcome in the medical system — and may start avoiding it. On top of that, black Americans are more likely to lack access to health insurance and less likely to have a regular doctor. This creates a situation in which African-Americans are dying from diseases at higher rates than other racial groups because they don’t get treatment in time.
Black scientists are systematically underfunded.
According to a recent analysis of grant data from the National Institute of Health (NIH), black scientists — and not other types of minorities — are less likely to receive government funding for a research project, even when they have the same credentials as their white peers. In fact, a black researcher’s chances of winning an NIH grant is 10 percentage points lower than a white researcher’s chances. Aside from the obvious issues with discriminating against qualified scientists, there’s some evidence this could be having a lasting impact on the types of research that’s conducted in this country. Research into diseases that disproportionately affect black people is underfunded, too — and people of color are underrepresented in clinical trials.
Disparities in the health care sector continue to hit the African-American community the hardest.
Thanks to structures of racism and poverty that stretch back for generations, black Americans are still more likely to lack access to surgical and emergency medical care, more likely to patronize hospitals that employ less-experienced staff, and much less likely to receive high-quality primary care. That puts this community in a position to significantly benefit from some of the reforms included in the Affordable Care Act. But it also means that black Americans are hit the hardest by the political resistance to implementing health reform. Republican governors’ ongoing resistance to the optional Medicaid expansion disproportionately harms African-Americans, particularly low-income black people living in the South.