Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How others' (and our) attitudes about race affect our health

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Health disparities across racial and ethnic groups suggest— but not conclusively— that discrimination affects your health. As a recent report from the American Psychological Association that I was a co-author on notes, minorities are far more susceptible to many diseases relative to majority groups, most notably heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The data are as consistent as they are maddening.

The reason that the data are not conclusive on the effect of discrimination, though, is that the data only relate health outcomes to group membership — leaving the data open to other interpretations. A college professor of mine once floated to our class the possibility that higher blood pressure among African American might not be the result of constantly having to deal with discrimination. Rather, he conjectured, African slaves with higher blood pressure might have been more likely to survive the grueling trip from West Africa to the U.S. Shores than those with low blood pressure, thus “selecting” for high blood pressure among today’s African Americans. Others might point to the different diets among racial/ethnic groups as the culprits of these health disparities, or any number of cultural or social factors.

These potential explanations are of course inter-related; availability of food choices, living environments, and other context-level factors related to health are themselves intricately linked to discrimination. But can one’s psychological experience surrounding discrimination — how we and others feel about our racial group membership— itself be related to important health outcomes? Having data that directly addresses this critical question is an incredibly important tool for those of us who, like me, are interested in moving beyond armchair theorizing about the underlying reasons for health disparities.

New research from the laboratory of David Amodio of NYU promises to yield an important tool in the data-driven fight against discrimination. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Amodio’s lab (Ratner, Halim, and Amodio, in press) directly establish a link between attitudes towards racial groups and important health markers.

Importantly, the authors did not just look at group-level differences (how Whites differ from Blacks as a group, for example), which leads to the problem of data interpretation I just described above. Rather, the researchers directly measured individual differences within a community of Black and Latina study participants in how negatively they thought other people judged their own group. They then examined whether these psychological variables helped explain variability in health risk within this community.

What were the health markers the group focused on? One of them was participants’ levels of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6, assayed from saliva. Chronic levels of inflammation are being increasingly recognized as a serious health risk that over time can lead to cardiovascular disease and cancer (which, coincidentally, are among the two outcomes that show the greatest minority-majority group disparities), and Il-6 serves as a marker of that risk. The researchers found that the more participants felt that their group was seen negatively by other people, the greater the levels of Il-6 in their saliva.

It’s important to point out that the community members that the researchers studied were not particularly unhealthy; they ranged in age from 18 to 44 with a mean age of 29. Beneath the surface, the data suggest, having to psychologically cope with others’ negative attitudes about one’s group is already exacting a toll on the immune and endocrine systems that, over time, become full blown health disparities.

As I often emphasize in this blog, though (see here and here), targets of discrimination are not passive recipients of the bias targeted at them. Rather, they find ways to cope, to survive — to thrive — in the face of such negativity. And the research bears this out as well. Specifically, the researchers also measured how people privately felt about their own group (this is in contrast to how one feels other people feel about one’s group, as above). The more participants reported agreeing to items such as “in general, I’m glad to be a member of my group,” the greater participants’ levels of a protective, stress-modulating hormone called DHEA-S.

Thus, this story has a silver lining. The study shows that attitudes about race directly impact health outcomes. But, while we can’t always influence others’ attitudes, we can influence our own attitudes— with the potential to benefit our health. So don’t take pride in your group for granted, especially when your group is stigmatized by society. Follow the lead of James Brown.

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 Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.