Michelle Hamilton, Runner's World, October 2, 2013
Recent research by sociologist Rashawn Ray, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, found that black men are less likely to run outside if they live in a predominantly white neighborhood. The opposite, however, was true for black women. They were more likely to be active in predominately white communities.
Ray surveyed 500 college-educated African-Americans living in urban and suburban areas across the United States in 2011 to explore why middle-class blacks were less physically active than their Caucasian peers.
“Research has shown that the higher one’s social class, the more likely she or he is to be physically active,” says Ray. “However, among blacks, social class does not explain the high prevalence of physical inactivity. Why do we see this? Without a better understanding of the barriers that lead to racial differences in physical activity among the middle class, we cannot devise effective policy solutions to combat the obesity epidemic.”
Ray says 50% of blacks get no physical activity at all, compared to only a third of whites. He cites racial bias as a key barrier.
“Black men are criminalized by the inability of others to separate a black male from crime,” says Ray. “Black men in white neighborhoods are more cautious of how they exercise and less comfortable in those neighborhoods because many black men have had social interactions in which they were profiled simply for being black and male.”
In addition to the survey, Ray collected ethnographic data that examined the activity level in public spaces in different parts of the country. He found that Atlanta, Georgia and Prince George’s County, Maryland had the highest concentration of college-educated black men in the country, and that the physical activity level among black men in these communities was higher, likely, he says, because the men were less likely to be criminalized.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bloomington, Indiana and Brentwood, Tennessee had the lowest percentage of college-educated blacks, and his data showed that black men were less likely to exercise in the these whiter communities.
Black women, on the other hand, were less likely to be physically active in black neighborhoods because these areas are perceived to be, and often are, less safe, according to Ray.
Lack of welcoming exercise facilities was another factor keeping black women from being active.
Ray says the running community can help break down stereotypes by advertising upcoming races and running clubs in churches, hair salons and barbershops, places where black people congregate.
He also encourages race directors to route their events through black neighborhoods, an idea supported by the National Black Marathoners Association.
The practice would let “blacks see we can run something longer than a quarter-mile,” says Anthony Reed, the association’s co-founder and executive director.
Ray suggests race directors and other running organizations also seek out representatives of black organizations and bring them to the table.
He’s encouraged by groups like Black Girls Run, a 62,000-member strong community that’s helping to diversify running.