Racism is hazardous to your health, especially if you are the target.
That’s one finding in a continuing study of black families by researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia who found a majority of African-American children in the two states have experienced some racial discrimination by age 11.
Discrimination creates stress and is a strong predictor of substance abuse and other health problems, said Rick Gibbons, a professor of psychology and one of the Iowa State researchers.
“Those participants who reported a great deal of exposure to prejudice were four times more likely than the rest of the sample to abuse drugs or alcohol,” Gibbons said.
However, strong community, family and extended family relationships can be an effective response to the potential negative impact of those experiences, Gibbons said.
The study has followed 900 black families, half in Iowa and half in Georgia, and focuses on the mental and physical health of the families who are from diverse educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, with incomes ranging from below the poverty line to more than $200,000 annually. No Council Bluffs families are in the study.
Gibbons said it is the largest panel study ever conducted with African-American families, meaning the study involves repeated visits and measurements with the families over time.
Discrimination was shown to be a predictor of drug and alcohol use even when researchers controlled for other factors usually associated with substance use, such as financial stress and relationship problems, availability of substances, use by friends and negative life events such as a job loss, Gibbons said.
“We find that discrimination rises to the top in terms of physical predictability of general health,” Gibbons said, adding the study is the first to show a link between discrimination and abuse.
African-American adolescents, from 13 to 18 years of age, are less likely than white youth to use substances, Gibbons said. The response to racial discrimination is delayed, but by the time the black youths are in their late teens, they’re more likely to be using substances than those who haven’t experienced discrimination and are using those substances at a rate equal to the white youths.
By the age of 15, black children know what racial discrimination is and they’ve experienced it, Gibbons said. That experience may be something as basic as having store clerks follow them around while white counterparts go unnoticed.
Black children realize they have negative experiences that many people around them don’t have, and it’s only because of their skin color, Gibbons said.
Seeing their parents, especially a mother, suffer discrimination also has a negative impact on children, he said.