Racism's Compounded Effects over Time Mean Poorer Health for African American Elders

By Kwate, Naa Oyo A. | Aging Today, September/October 2014 | Go to article overview

Racism's Compounded Effects over Time Mean Poorer Health for African American Elders


Kwate, Naa Oyo A., Aging Today


Racism exerts pernicious effects on the lives of African Americans. Researchers argue that living with the chronic stress of discrimination-both from major events and "day-to-day" encounters-creates wear and tear in the body, resulting in poor health. Discrimination is associated with a number of mental and physical health problems, including arterial calcification, abdominal fat, psychiatric symptoms and substance use, according to Paradies in the International Journal of Epidemiology (35, 2006).

Effects of Racism Build Up Over Time

Among older African Americans, discrimination is associated with higher blood pressure, inflammatory cytokines and even higher risk of mortality, according to Barnes et al. in the American Journal of Public Health (98:7, 2008), Lewis et al. in Brain, Behavior and Immunity (24:3, 2010) and Lewis et al. in The Journals of Gerontology (64A:9, 2009). Research across the globe also has shown that there is a social gradient in health. On a scale from least resources to most, health is better for those at higher points on the scale. It is not simply a matter of poor versus rich. The more resources one has the better, across the spectrum. Racism depletes and jeopardizes resources and, as a result, it compromises the aging process for African American older adults. Three such resources are employment income, housing and retail.

Racism means fewer resources for African American elders throughout their lives, and a more precarious existence in retirement, where downward mobility is a real possibility. Racism in employment settings makes socioeconomic status unstable. African American workers are more likely to be concentrated in sectors where jobs are dwindling or sent overseas, and they are "spatially mismatched" from their jobs: employers are more likely to be located in outlying suburbs, far from neighborhoods where African American

workers live. African American workers also are less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired. They see less return on wages from education, are paid less for the same work as their white counterparts and have fewer advancement opportunities.,Less employment and lower income puts African American elders farther down the social gradient, increasing health risk.

Disadvantaged in Home Security

Those facing downward mobility will be less able to maintain homes, too, creating housing risks. Consider the importance of housing security, particularly for older adults on fixed incomes. Their tenuous grasp on housing may collapse in extreme events. In New Orleans, racism relegated African Americans to housing in the most hazardous areas, causing tremendous losses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, compounded by nonexistent state support. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, African American elders in public housing were marooned in high-rise buildings without power, water, heat or access to food and other supplies.

Though owning a home should bring greater security than renting, African American older adults are significantly disadvantaged there, too. Entrenched segregation perpetuated by many parties constricts communities in which African Americans have bought homes-if they are able to buy. Redlining, restrictive covenants and other institutional practices shut out many such elders from homeownership, or shunt them into predatory markets that make homeownership an unstable proposition that undermines, rather than creates, wealth. …

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