How racism chips away at health

Racism is having devastating effects on Black Americans’ physical and mental health, according to sociologist David Williams.

Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes in a segment on racism and health that aired on April 18, 2021.

“Imagine a fully loaded jumbo jet, with 220 passengers and crew taking off and crashing today, and the same thing happens every day next week, and every day next month, and every day for the rest of the year,” said Williams. “That’s exactly what is occurring when we say there are racial disparities in health in the United States. Over 200 Black people dying prematurely every single day.”

Williams described a test he created to assess the impact of racism, called the “everyday discrimination scale,” that measures “the little ways in which your dignity is chipped away on a daily basis,” such as being treated with less courtesy than others, receiving poorer service than others at restaurants or stores, or having people act as if they’re afraid of you. He said that people who score high on the scale have a broad range of adverse health conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and poorer mental health.

Williams noted that police killings of unarmed Black Americans can have a damaging impact on entire communities. In a nationwide study, “we were able to document that every police shooting of an unarmed African American led to worse mental health for the entire Black population in the state in which it occurred for the next three months,” he said.

Nevertheless, Williams expressed optimism that the widespread public protests that followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others could lead to positive change. “I think we are at a crossroads in the United States,” he said. “I think we are in a moment of reckoning, of understanding race and how profoundly race continues to matter for health.”

Watch the 60 Minutes segment: Racism’s Corrosive Impact on the Health of Black Americans