By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
A new study joins a growing pile of research that shows racism is toxic to humans.
While the latest study by a team of USC and UCLA scientists found that racist experiences appear to increase inflammation in African-Americans and could lead to chronic illness, the study only focused on a group of 71 subjects: two-thirds African-Americans; the others white. Researchers acknowledge the sample size was small. However, the results signal the need for a repeat study with a larger sample to fully determine the inflammatory effects of racism on people of color.
“We know discrimination is linked to health outcomes, but no one was sure exactly how it harmed health,” April Thames, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, said of the new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology on April 19.
“I looked at it as a chronic stressor, Thames said. “ Our results showed that racial discrimination appears to trigger an inflammatory response among African-Americans at the cellular level.”
Numerous scholars define racism as beliefs, attitudes, institutional arrangements, and acts that tend to denigrate individuals or groups because of physical characteristics [e.g., skin color, hair texture, width of nose, size of lips] or ethnic group affiliation” Defined in this way, racism can exist at both the individual and institutional levels and include subjective and more objective experiences of racism.
Since the survival of all living things depends on their ability to respond to infections, stresses and injuries. Ongoing denigration is perceived as a threat that may trigger the immune system’s ability to fend off pathogens and repair damaged tissues.
This defense mechanism is launched by a select group of genes. Inflammation is a sign that the genes are working to counter the threat or repair the damage.
Inflammation serves to protect an organism from a health threat. But if someone feels under threat for long periods of time, his or her health may suffer significantly with chronic inflammation.
“If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer,” said co-author Steve Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles.
In previous studies, Cole found that inflammatory responses are heightened among those in socially marginalized, isolated groups. “We’ve seen this before in chronic loneliness, poverty, PTSD and other types of adversity,” he said. “But until now, nobody had looked at the effects of discrimination.”
Thirty-eight of the 71 subjects in the study were positive for HIV. Their participation gave scientists a chance to study the effects of racism independently from the effects of the disease.
The scientists extracted RNA from the participants’ cells and measured molecules that trigger inflammation, as well as those involved in antiviral responses. The research team found higher levels of the inflammatory molecules in African-American participants.
The results also indicate that racism may account for as much as 50 percent of the heightened inflammation among African-Americans, including those who were positive for HIV.
Ruling out other stressors
The scientists made sure that all the participants had similar socioeconomic background to account for financial stressors, which eliminated poverty as a potential factor for chronic inflammation among the people in the study.
“Racial discrimination is a different type of chronic stressor than poverty,” Thames says. “People navigate poverty on a day-to-day basis and are aware that it is happening. They might even be able to address financial stressors through job changes, changes in earnings and financial management. But with discrimination, you don’t always realize that it’s happening.”
Individuals’ decisions or lifestyles can reduce the ill effects of some stressors, but racial discrimination is a chronic stressor that people have no control over. “You can’t change your skin color,” she says.
Thames notes that this latest study has an obvious limitation: The sample size was small. But she says the results signal that scientists should repeat the study with a larger sample to fully determine the inflammatory effects of racism on people of color.
Co-authors of the study included Cole, Michael Irwin, and Elizabeth Breen from UCLA.
The study was supported by an estimated $1 million in grants from multiple sources, including the National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Science, UCLA, the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health, and the Claude D. Pepper Older Adults Independent Centers at the National Institute on Aging.