Menus Subscribe Search

Genes Are Us

cellsblack1

(Photo: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program)

Racism Might Hurt Your Cells

• January 07, 2014 • 2:35 PM

(Photo: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program)

A new study suggests a link between discrimination and the heath of cells.

Dark moments of discrimination—the stop-and-frisks, the pained job interviews, the whispered epithets—that many African Americans have endured has recently been linked to increased stress and a host of health problems. But according to a new study, which will appear in the February 2014 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, racism, when combined with a negative attitude about your own ethnicity, is associated with harmful biological shifts at the cellular level.

Specifically, the researchers set out to test whether high levels of reported discrimination and an “internalization of negative racial bias” among African American men would correlate with the length of their Leukocyte telomeres, mounds of DNA that can indicate “overall immune health.” Each year, cells lose about “50-100 base pairs” from telomere strands. Generally, shorter leukocyte telomeres mean the cells are getting older and can produce “aging-related health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis, as well as earlier mortality, in addition to their associated risk factors (e.g., biological, behavioral, and environmental).”

To evaluate telomere length, the scientists took blood samples from 92 black male subjects in the Bay Area and compared them to the results from a discrimination questionnaire and an “implicit association test” that measured unconscious “in-group” racial bias. The questions targeted discrimination in nine different areas: on the street, at job interviews, getting housing, going to the bank, etc. The majority (76.1 percent) reported experiencing racism in three to nine of the listed settings. Only six of the subjects reported not experiencing it in any area. Negative interactions with the police and the courts were the most cited, with 79 participants, or 85.9 percent, of the respondents saying they’d encountered discrimination in this area. The group also took “implicit association” tests on a computer to determine whether they had an unconscious “pro-black” or “anti-black bias.” The results showed that 63 percent of the subjects had a “pro-black bias,” and that 37 percent had an “anti-black bias.”

The analysis indicated that, after controlling for a battery of age, socioeconomic, and health variables, higher levels of reported racial discrimination were linked to shorter Leukocyte telomere lengths in the men that had an “anti-black bias.” This suggests that the experience of racism, combined with the negative “in-group” feelings, may age cells faster and put people at higher risk of disease. However, the study also revealed that the participants who maintained a “pro-black bias” did not see the same telomeric correlations. The authors write:

African-American men with an implicit bias against their own group may be compromised in their ability to psychologically manage or cope with stress resulting from racial discrimination. Holding an anti-black bias in tandem with the experience of externally perpetrated racial discrimination may represent threats to both self- and group identity and together have especially detrimental consequences for telomeric aging. In contrast, holding a pro-black bias may serve as a buffer against racial stressors.

…One possible interpretation is that those who internalize negative racial group attitudes may be more likely to perceive that experiences of discrimination against the target group are deserved. Conversely, among those with a pro-black bias, interpreting adverse experiences as being racially motivated may have self-protective properties by deflecting from personal deficiencies and through attribution of blame to external factors.

Ending racism altogether could probably help end this accelerated aging process, but, as that slow lurch continues, fostering “positive in-group racial attitudes” may be another way to battle against it.

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.


August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.


August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.



August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.