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Teasing out the impact of race

By Christianna L. Lewis

Gerrard (left) and Gibbons began tracking almost 900 black families in 1995.

Racial discrimination can affect more than a person's mental health. A recent study based on work by a pair of Dartmouth psychologists suggests it has an impact on physical health as well.

The study focused on 219 African-Americans age 17 to 25 who reported drug use in the previous six months. The researchers found that perceived racism increased the subjects' susceptibility to drug use, but that strong racial identity strengthened their resistance to racism's negative effects. The finding, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was based on years of work by DMS's Frederick Gibbons, Ph.D., and Meg Gerrard, Ph.D. Michelle Stock, Ph.D., of George Washington University led the latest analysis of the data.

Track: Gibbons and Gerrard (who are married to each other) began examining the behavior and health of almost 900 black families from Iowa and Georgia in 1995, and they continue to track about 78% of those families today. This group, called the Family And Community Health Study (FACHS), is the largest in-depth examination of African-American families in the U.S., says Gibbons.

In the latest study, they asked FACHS participants to imagine one of three scenarios, one of which included racial discrimination. Then they assessed the subjects' willingness to use drugs. Later, Stock did a separate experiment. She asked young African-American adults in Washington, D.C., to play an online game with players who, they were led to believe, were white; those who experienced discrimination during the game believed it was because of race.

The two approaches gave consistent results. Subjects who faced racial discrimination showed a higher willingness to use drugs and alcohol in both multiple-choice and open-ended questions. But subjects who identified closely with their race seemed to be protected from discrimination's effects.

Gibbons says the analysis controlled for stress levels, suggesting that discrimination "produces anger and hostility that translates into substance use" in a way other stressors do not. It is in this way that racism hurts minorities' physical health, says Stock. With this understanding, the researchers are now investigating how discrimination has an effect on other risky health behaviors.

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