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The Effects of Racism on the Health of African Americans Essay


Studies now show that racism plays a significant role in the development of health and mental issues. Heath effects of racism range from boosting risk of depression, anxiety and anger. These are all factors that can lead to heart disease and other health related issues. Despite the general agreement that racism is wrong there is little evidence that programs and incentives are actually having much affect decreasing its devastating results. In addition, the lack of health care escalates the problem as many minorities are not properly covered in relation to Caucasians. Research also shows that the economic discrepancies that minorities face add to an already high level of stress related concerns. Economic stress, work load, unemployment are a few of the issues that minorities face which increase the risk of health problems.

The Effects of Racism on the Health of Minorities

In the past fifteen years there has been a great deal of research done on the effects of racism on health of African American and other minorities in the United States. In fact, well over a hundred studies have been published noting the harmful effects of discrimination on the health of African American men, women, and children. Unfortunately, results have provided us with disturbing data. The findings show that not only does racism have a direct effect on an individual’s physical health but also mental health as well. In addition, studies reveal several disturbing reasons one of them being inferior health care for minorities.

Also, various studies link heath and mental problems in several forms such as stress leading to heart disease, cardiovascular problems and issues stemming from high blood pressure. Regardless of the health or mental problem, studies show that there is a direct link between racism facing African Americans in the United States and health and mental issues.

African Americans make up over twelve percent of the population of the United States yet this race has a significantly higher mortality rate that any other group. Based on their findings regarding life expectancy, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention insists that on average the Caucasian population in the United States life expectancy exceeds that of the African American population by almost five and a half years. Moreover, the same source states that deaths due to heart disease were 31% higher in black American than their white counterparts (CDC, 2005).

One particularly disturbing trend that a great deal of research reveals is that African American face a higher risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure than any other racial group in the United States. This fact seems to transcend economic status as more affluent black Americans are just as much at risk. The question of course is why?

Past studies have focused on the racial discrepancy in health evolving out of the omnipresent social and institutional forces. These studies have connected higher rates of death and disease in the African American population to social injustices as segregation, low economic status, poverty, unemployment, targeted marketing of alcohol and cigarettes, and other inequities. Research clearly connects these issues with health issues facing the African American community.

However, a new focus has emerged. One of the biggest culprits is stress. Studies show that constant exposure to racism creates a level of stress that which makes African Americans vulnerable to health problems such as heart disease, and hypertension. According to an early study by Sherman James of Duke University, people who cope with overwhelming stress on a regular basis by exerting “prodigious physical and mental effort” open themselves up to potentially devastating health issues. James’ study suggests that specifically blacks pay a physical price, with higher rates of blood pressure and hypertension (James, 1994). James began his research in the early 1980s which shows that this issue has been constantly building over time.

Racism serves as the fire that ignites the bomb that is stress. This sets off a chain reaction which leads to chronic or reoccurring issues such as elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure and suppressed immunity to name a few. Chronic stress can also lead to additional problems like poor and unhealthy eating habits, smoking and alcohol abuse. These alone can lead to serious health problems.

A study done by the Harvard School of Public Health found that not only was race related stress responsible for a wide range of African American health issues like high blood pressure, but by internalizing the stress drives it up even higher. After examining the reactions of a multitude of African American volunteers to racist stimulus, the study showed a pronounced spike in heart rate and blood pressure. In addition it took much longer for the subjects to recover (Sternthal, 2011). This data leads to the determination that African Americans forced to deal with lifetime of this sort of stimulus will certainly prolong the effect.

Moreover, many African Americans state that, for various reasons, they tend to suppress such inner turmoil. Needless to say, failure to sufficiently cope following a racist experience leads to compounding the problems. To further these findings, a study by St. Johns University found that individuals experiencing racist situations during the day still had an elevated blood pressure that night. Thus, for African Americans, racist experiences have a prolonged effect (Brondolo, 2009).

Also, participants in a study by Cornell University, Professor Anthony Ong reported a high level of anxiety and depression following encounters with racist activity (Ong, 2008). Much like the findings by the St. John study, the effects are prolonged. The study indicates that excessive and regular exposure to discrimination tends to build up and boil over into other aspects of everyday life such as family, friends and health (Ong, 2008).

Compounding the problem for African Americans is the lack of access to health insurance. Research states that over 38 million Americans are uninsured with a disproportionate number of those being African Americans. There are a few reasons for this. First, a great deal of access to health insurance in the United States tie in with employment. The unemployment rate of African Americans, which has historically been higher that white Americans, coupled with general economic problems help lead to a lack of medical insurance within the black community. The Center for Disease Control notes a significant gap between African Americans covered with health insurance relative to their Caucasian counterparts (CDC, 2008).

In addition, studies show that racial arrangement of the economy based on other forms of discrimination have resulted in a high number of African Americans low wage jobs. These jobs rarely have insurance benefits. To further the problem, as the unemployment rate goes up the number of those insured goes down. With the high level of unemployment among African Americans their health care access declines. This fact escalates the stress level discussed earlier.

Welfare reform which was initiated in 1996 has taken its toll as well. This has resulted in the reduction in the use of eligible Medicaid recipients due to the unawareness of qualified individuals. Thus the number of uninsured persons rose even higher. There is no question that many African Americans use various social welfare programs which in some ways have closed the health care gap. However, the extent of care received by individuals who access programs like Medicare and Medicaid can be questioned. Treatment options available through health insurance companies are much more comprehensive relative to most social programs. The overall care in most cases is simply not the same.

Living in poverty causes a twofold problem for African Americans. People living in extremely poor urban areas in the United States have a higher premature death rate that persons living in underdeveloped nations around the world. This fact can be attributed to exposure to racism, unhealthy lifestyle and constant threat of violence. For African Americans living in poverty in the United States facing these issues on a daily basis causes an increased level of stress and anxiety from a feeling of constant embattlement. This often leads to a higher risk of extremely unhealthy physical and mental issues.

The differences in socioeconomic status between white and black Americans can and often lead to mental anguish among African Americans living in poverty. Studies show that people living in poverty and low economic communities regularly face “violence, crime, fear of crime, over-crowding, noise and population turnover” (Williams, 2010, p. 251).

Poverty also plays a significant role in the availability of quality health care for African Americans. With the rising poverty level so rises the need for quality health care. Statistics say that almost nine million African Americans lived in poverty in 2004 which was an increase of over 250,000 from the previous two years (USCB, 2005). African American poverty rates continue to hover around twice that of the national rate. These facts lead to an additional problem, that of access and quality of health care that is available.

Areas that are highly populated by minorities tend to have very little health care facilities. Minority doctors and health care providers are usually placed in these areas which makes the level and accessibility of education for minority doctors extremely important. The shortage of minority health care providers makes it even more difficult for African Americans living in poverty to reach quality treatment when they need it.

Based on the issues discussed earlier and the impact on the health of African Americans, this group is more likely to need health treatment at some point. Lack of sufficient treatment has been the subject of several studies which have relinquished significant results. Studies in such areas as AIDS, cardio vascular disease, heart disease, internal medicine, mental health and others have all found a disparity in the level of attention paid and treatment given. Though this fact can be based on several factors, race does have an important role.

A study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that white Americans seeking treatment for various heath issue, received significantly better treatment with regard to thoroughness of care, diagnostic work, and follow-up care than African Americans. However, the study also found that their data held true regardless of income and education of the patient. Moreover, studies found that doctors are more aggressive with white American while treating illnesses. In fact, the favored patient seems to be white males between the ages of 25 to 44 while the least favored is African American women (Schuster, 2012).

However, lack of treatment is not the only problem facing African Americans in the area of health care. Equally important is information of preventative care. Having access to preventative strategies and education could possibly help with many of the health issues facing African Americans. Preventative medicine has in the past been a useful tool for all Americans. This would be particularly useful for African American mothers and mothers to be. Studies show that minority women have less access to birth control options, family planning facilities in their communities and information of prenatal care.

According to a study by Emory University in Atlanta, higher mortality rates have been reported due greatly to poverty related issues such as poor nutrition, insufficient prenatal care, stress, high blood pressure, low birth weights and preterm births. In addition, infant mortality rate also speaks to the health of pregnant women, children, infants and its association with maternal health, as well as quality and access to prenatal care. The same study found that African American women are more likely to have children who are premature and low birth weight than Caucasian women and every other minority (Jackson, 2007).

In addition, African American infants are 2.4 times more likely to die within their first year than white infants (Jackson, 2007). For some, stress was added to an already stressful situation as African American mothers stated that they were scared of having a black male child because of the way some they are treated in this country. A study by Chicago’s Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University noted that black women who “delivered low weight, premature infants have a twofold greater lifelong exposure to racial discrimination than African American women who delivered full-term, normal weight babies (Collins, 2009, p. 65). The women identified racism as a major health risk (Collins, 2009).

A report published by the Urban Institute in 2010 found that the longer children stayed in poverty the more difficult they would have dealing with the stressors that environment creates. In turn, this creates the additional problem of escalating the risk they will face from long term health problems. African American children growing up in poverty often face the additional threat of malnutrition. The lack of an adequate diet and nutrition for developing children can contribute to a great number of health problems for years to come. Ironically, studies show that obesity has become a side effect of malnutrition. This is due to the fact that for children who do not receive proper and essential foods will most often make a diet of unhealthy foods such as fast food. Moreover, childhood malnutrition, hunger and obesity can all lead to problems such as weakened immune system, chronic fatigue and developmental issues (Ratcliffe, 2010).

As stated earlier, racism can also take the form of obesity which attacks the African American community. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that there is a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity in the African American population that that of white Americans (CDC, 2009). When one considers that African Americans make up an extremely large portion of the nation’s poverty, it is certainly no stretch to link obesity and poverty. Experts have found that, in the United States, obesity rates are higher in states that make up the rural South where poverty within the African American population is a drastic problem.

Fueling the problem is that it is much cheaper to buy foods that are sugar and fatty ingredients than it is to buy fruits and vegetables. Moreover, within most low income communities it is much easier to attain junk food and fast food than food with high nutritional value. A study by the University of Washington found that subsidies paid to farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture surround crops such as soybeans and corn which are central to the creation of typical junk food. Thus it costs “five times less per calorie to by Twinkies and soda than broccoli and apples” (Drewnowski, 2009).

However the obesity can have other far reaching effects on African Americans. Studies have shown that obesity becomes a matter of how people view and classify others even at a very young age. Research by the University of Hawaii’s Journal of Academic Writing found that children begin as early as age six to connect obesity with laziness, ugliness, and stupidity among others (Chernov, 2006). Needless to say, as children grow into adults they often face discrimination based on obesity. In fact, many of the stereotypes that are linked with obesity (laziness, sloppiness, health risks which could lead to absence from work) have become reasons for individuals’ failure to attain employment (Chernov, 2006).

African American in the United States face and alarming level of health disparities which can result in premature death, decreased quality of life, and limited employment opportunities. Several studies indicate that these inequities create an increased level of stress and risks for such health conditions as heart disease and hypertension. Facing racism and discrimination faced by African Americans means they are more likely to be exposed to several other health risks, including poverty, malnutrition and mental health issues.

Perhaps most importantly, a severe lack of health insurance within the African American community can certainly be linked to drastic health problems in men, women and children. Based on these findings it seems clear that any plan to improve health within the African American community must include plans to combat racism in all its forms. Though more research in these areas is needed, early indications show that this research could change the way we look at both racism and health. It very well could pinpoint racism as a legitimate public health issue.


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