How discrimination can harm black women’s health

Black women face risks to their health from discrimination—both from health professionals who don’t take their concerns seriously and from biological wear and tear caused by chronic stress. An October 2018 article on the topic cites research from two researchers and an alumna from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Research by Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology, has found that early-life exposure to Jim Crow laws—which legalized racial discrimination in Southern U.S. states from the late 1870s through the mid-1960s—can lead to negative health effects decades later. For example, among U.S. women currently diagnosed with breast cancer, being born in a Jim Crow state heightened black women’s risk of being diagnosed with estrogen-receptor negative breast tumors, which are more aggressive and less responsive to traditional chemotherapy.

Krieger told, “My research shows [Jim Crow laws are] still being reckoned with in the bodies of people who lived through that time.” Potential reasons include lack of access to health care, exposure to environmental hazards, and economic deprivation.

The School’s David R. Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health, pointed to neighborhood racial segregation as a key driver of health inequities. According to the article, predominantly black neighborhoods have higher levels of air pollution and fewer supermarkets than other neighborhoods, and lack access to medical specialists.

The article also cites research by Arline Geronimus, SD ’85, professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, who pioneered the theory of “weathering”—the idea that high levels of chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes and premature aging.

Read the article: The Article That Could Help Save Black Women’s Lives

Learn more

Jim Crow laws: A contributing factor to more lethal breast cancer among U.S. black women now? (Harvard Chan School news)

Understanding slavery’s legacy in health and medicine (Harvard Chan School news)