Racism, prejudiced attitudes, beliefs and behaviour have a significantly detrimental impact on the lives of minorities.
It leads to structural oppression, worse outcomes in education, job prospects and earning ability – as well as the isolation and fear that can be caused by open hostility.
But a new American study has found that racism can actually shorten the lives of black people, because being subject to racism can trigger genes that cause inflammation and deadly illnesses.
Of course, social-environmental factors such as poverty and health care inequities also play a part in the likelihood of a shorter life – but this study found that racism was a driver for certain illnesses.
The findings, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, state that genes that promote inflammation are expressed more often in black people than in white people. And the study authors believe that exposure to racism is why.
‘Differential exposure to racial discrimination may contribute to racial disparities in health outcomes in part by activating threat-related molecular programs that stimulate inflammation and contribute to increased risk of chronic illnesses,’ state the researchers.
They say that, until now, ‘racial disparities in health outcomes between African Americans and European Americans have been well-documented, but not fully understood.’
Inflammation is an important contributing factor in chronic disease and research suggests that chronic inflammation could play a role in a range of conditions, from cancer to asthma.
Chronic inflammation can cause aging and organ damage.
Researchers believe that racism must be a contributing factor because they selected a sample of people to test who had a similar socioeconomic status, and they also took into consideration the health disparities such as social stress, and health care access.
The researchers point out that previous studies have shown that exposure to racism can impair brain function and impact innate immunity.
‘I believe racism and discrimination should be treated as a health risk factor – just like smoking,’ wrote study co-author April Thames in The Conversation.
‘It is toxic to health by damaging the natural defenses our bodies use to fight off infection and disease.
‘Interventions tailored toward reducing racism-associated stress may mitigate some of its adverse effects on health.
‘As a society we cannot afford to perpetuate health inequities by undermining or disguising the biological impact of racism.’
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