I was born and raised in Kansas at a time when few Indian families lived in our community. We were often the targets of racism. Other kids refused to play with my sister and me because of the color of our skin. More than once, their parents left a Bible on our driveway in the hopes of saving us.
My experiences as an “other” led me to a professional life working with technology and the health of underserved women across 10 countries over 10 years, including in the U.S. and India. I’ve rarely heard people talk about racism as a public health issue, but an ever-growing body of evidence shows that it is. Racism might be shaving years off of minorities’ lives, and this is more critical than ever in our current political climate.
More than 20 years ago, Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, suggested in her graduate research that many minorities were experiencing “weathering” — a slow-creeping erosion of their minds and bodies from the stress of racism. The scientific community rolled its eyes at her hypothesis. But in the two decades since, hundreds of studies across different ethnic groups have bolstered her theory.
The breakthrough began when Geronimus dug into alarming statistics. Black women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth compared with white women. Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants. According to a recent article by Linda Villarosa, director of the journalism program at the City College of New York, this is a larger gap between the races than the one that existed in 1850, 15 years before slavery ended.
Over two decades, researchers found that obvious factors that might account for this disparity — including income, health of the mother and genetics — were not the direct causes, or that they only partially explained the disparity.
After researchers learned that college-educated black women are more likely to have a child who dies in infancy compared to college-educated white women, they were eventually able to determine that a large contributing factor to this discrepancy is stress caused by racism. Considering the magnitude and the institutionalization of racism over hundreds of years against black communities in the U.S., a large body of literature exists on the topic. Unfortunately, our society has chosen to ignore this.
We are now starting to see more research into solutions to minority women’s issues. A 2006 study by Diane S. Lauderdale, a professor at the University of Chicago, compared two groups of women with Arabic-sounding names in California who had given birth during the same six-month period in consecutive years. One group had given birth before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the other after.
We know that maternal and fetal stress causes the release of hormones that can result in mothers going into labor early and babies with low birth weight. The risk of poor birth outcomes was much higher for Arabic women who had given birth after 9/11.
This study also provided strong evidence that stress from racism correlated with low birth weight. And hundreds of other studies link racial discrimination to mental and physical health conditions beyond minority women during childbirth.
Racism can be hard to measure, so could this research be misleading? That’s wishful thinking. Even studies that don’t use self-reported discrimination, such as Lauderdale’s, show that racism leads to poorer health outcomes. Several of them have also been replicated to show similar outcomes.
We need to start calling racial discrimination what it is — a public health crisis. Racism is making minorities sick, and I’m afraid we’ll look back on this as one of the biggest societal ills of our time.
Priya Iyer is a data scientist at biotechnology corporation Genentech. She has a master’s of public health degree from Columbia University.