Editorial: Racism’s generational ripple effect

Last modified: Thursday, October 02, 2014
It might be possible to affect the future with a smile, a kindly look and the resolve to treat everyone, no matter what their color or creed, fairly as a fellow human being. Knowing that is important, because New Hampshire’s complexion is changing.

Though the state’s minority population remains roughly 5 percent, minorities accounted for half of the state’s population gain between 2000 and 2010, according to UNH demographer Ken Johnson. Minorities, among them Hispanics and the thousands of refugees from African nations and Bhutan, account for 7 percent of Manchester’s population and 8 percent of Nashua’s residents.

How the state’s overwhelmingly white residents treat minorities affects not only the health of the minority population but the health of their children.

For years, researchers wondered why, after adjusting for age, education, income, smoking and other factors, infant mortality and premature births are far higher for African American women than white women. White American females with a college degree or higher experience about four deaths per 1,000 births. The rate for similarly educated African American women is about 10 per thousand.

The answer, as explained in research reports and Unnatural Causes, an updated documentary series first aired by the Public Broadcasting Service, is that racism weakens and sometimes kills. Education and career success cannot, it seems, inoculate a member of a minority against the harmful effects of discrimination and unequal treatment.

Part of the documentary focused on Kim Andersen, a happily-married, African American Atlanta resident with a law degree from Columbia who did everything right. She ate well, didn’t smoke or drink, and exercised, yet nonetheless gave birth to a baby who weighed just over 2 pounds. The diagnosis: The chronic stress of everyday racism and the hormones produced by the stress reaction affects the body in negative ways that include shortening pregnancy. Black women who are nonsmokers, for example, have a higher rate of low birth weight births than white female smokers.

Other studies, including one reported on this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that stress caused by racism affects the DNA of black children and increases rates of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.

In its report on the phenomenon, the Boston Public Health Commission concluded that, “It is the position of the BPHC that racial inequities in low birth weight births between blacks and whites are related to unjust and preventable inequities in access to social well-being and economic resources.”

Last year, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies issued its “Health and Equity in N.H.” report. Though the state is one of the healthiest in the nation, that good health is not shared by its minority and low-income population.

“Achieving a fair opportunity for health for all of New Hampshire’s people requires understanding why some people in our communities experience unfair differences in health status. We must collectively act to advance health equity. We need to stop thinking about health as something we get at the doctor’s office. Rather, our health results from how and where we live, learn, work and play,” the report concluded.

In New Hampshire, the state, the Foundation for Health Communities, the Endowment for Health, and other organizations are working to remove barriers to access to care for the state’s low-income and minority residents. There are outreach programs, efforts to remove language and transportation barriers, and community education efforts. All help. But perhaps the best way to achieve health for all is to truly become a color-blind society, one in which an individual’s color doesn’t carry with it a chain of false assumptions.