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(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.

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