Social Sickness

Researcher Links Racism, Physical Wellness
by Chris Carroll | chae photo by John T. Consoli

While the most poisonous elements of anti-black racism like slavery and legally sanctioned segregation are history, the fallout from centuries of inequality may still be killing people.

Racism in its current, subtler guise doesn’t only hurt feelings, says David Chae, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. It also has measurable effects on African Americans’ health and mortality.

He calls racism a “social toxin” that raises “susceptibility to diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes. And once someone does develop a disease, racism-related stressors can lead to accelerated progression and worse outcomes.”

Chae has caused a stir with recent research papers documenting this toxin in action. In a paper published this spring in the journal PLOS ONE, he combined big data analytics by co-author and former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz with National Center for Health Statistics data to show something disturbing but not necessarily surprising: Blacks in areas of the country where people type the “n-word” most frequently in Google searches are significantly sicker than elsewhere.

And in a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Chae found that African-American men subjected to higher levels of discrimination had DNA damage that could lead to earlier aging and worsening health.

Several factors are to blame, Chae says, including stress and lack of access to health care in disadvantaged communities. And research shows that doctors—without conscious malice—may provide lesser care to black patients because of biased assumptions about how closely they’ll follow instructions.

Chae is fighting the notion that racism is a problem solved, says Rashawn Ray, an assistant sociology professor studying health-related racial inequities.

“Racism is still a major problem to be tackled to ensure that people really have equal chances of living healthy and beneficial lives,” Ray says. “Dr. Chae’s research illuminates that health isn't simply something internal or genetic. Rather, health has a social component.”

Questions of equality animate Chae’s research. He grew up in a low-income neighborhood of New York City and in January watched his Korean-born mother succumb to cancer after decades working physical jobs to provide for her family. He wonders whether her status in society played a role in shortening her life.

“Why should someone who’s working class have to die years earlier than someone who’s more privileged?” he says. “Why should someone who’s black live five years less than someone white?”


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