Lisa Rapaport, Reuters, September 18, 2015
In U.S. communities with high levels of racial prejudice, both blacks and whites may have worse survival odds than people who live in more tolerant places, a study suggests.
Researchers examined U.S. survey data on racial attitudes from 1993 to 2002 and linked the responses to death records through 2008, to explore the impact of prejudice on mortality. Altogether they had data from almost 11,000 people living in 100 communities nationwide.
By 2008, 1,651 people died, accounting for about 15 percent of the participants.
Living in a community with higher levels of anti-black prejudice increased residents’ overall odds of death by 24 percent when mortality risk was assessed independent of individual and neighborhood socioeconomic factors and individually held racial attitudes, the study found.
“Racial prejudice compromises health for the community as a whole,” said lead study author Yeonjin Lee, a sociology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
The findings challenge a widespread belief that only victims of racial prejudice can be harmed by prejudice, Lee said by email. Instead, the study found prejudice was harmful for the health of both black and white participants.
“The current finding–that adverse effects of structural racism were not specific to blacks–show that structural discrimination not only damages the low-status group members but also majority group members who live in the same community,” Lee added.
The survey questions that Lee and colleagues analyzed asked whether black people had worse jobs, income or housing due to less in-born ability to learn; and whether black people lacked motivation to get out of poverty.
Additional questions touched on both black and white individuals, asking if one race was more or less intelligent or lazy than the other and whether there should be laws against marriages between the two races.
Researchers also lacked data on some factors that can influence mortality, such as how people eat and whether they smoke or drink.
While the paper doesn’t prove prejudice causes premature death, it’s possible that residents of communities with less racial tension may have a greater ability to band together to advocate for policies and services that help foster a healthier neighborhood, the authors suggest.
Researchers call this social capital, and they found higher levels linked to a 17 percent reduction in community-level mortality. Social capital was lower in communities where racial prejudice was higher, the study found.