Race & Discrimination

Getting Under the Skin – What Happens When Racism Meets Brain Science

Imagine that you are in a grocery store, and you suddenly feel that someone on the staff is watching you and following you as you walk through the store. Do they think you will steal something from the shelves? Vandalize the store in some way? Harass other customers? These questions about how and why you are being targeted by another person are part of a stress response that becomes etched in the fabric of your brain’s memory as a short cut that will remind you how to react the next time you experience the same feelings.

Once your brain has registered that short cut, it triggers a chain of neurological events that have the ability to change the chemistry of your body, sometimes making you sicker, faster. The stress response launched by your brain to a stressful encounter can suppress your immune system and increase your blood pressure, making you more susceptible to long-term illnesses like cardiovascular disease. Researchers studying the neurological reactions to stress by African Americans have discovered that chronic stress related to discrimination may be a critical factor to understanding why health disparities for that population persist, even when other factors, such as socioeconomic status, are taken into account.

The BRITE Center researches the health effects of discrimination, real and perceived, in order to help reduce health disparities and lessen the disease burden for ethnic and minority communities. In a new project, center researchers are studying the effects of discrimination in the brain in real time. Thanks to brain-mapping technologies, researchers can watch the stress-response short-cut in action. By working across the fields of psychology, sociology and neuroscience, center researchers are combining 1) research on the behavioral, social and psychological factors that explain the connection between discrimination and health, with 2) what happens on the molecular level, in order to paint a comprehensive picture of why some communities live sicker and die younger than others.

Related Projects

Race Discrimination Studies

The BRITE Center’s qualitative study on how African American men aged 18-94 have experienced racism helped to inform the Los Angeles County Survey of Race Discrimination, which explored risk environments, perceived discrimination, and physical and mental health outcomes. Conducted in conjunction with UCLA’s School of Law and departments of Political Science, Urban Planning, Chicano Studies, and the department of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, 600 African Americans, 600 Whites and 600 Latinos were engaged in the study.

Pathophysiology of Racism

This collaborative, cross-disciplinary project brought together psychophysiological studies and MRI technology to examine how race-based discrimination works within a person’s neurocognitive system. Researchers looked at what happened in the brains of subjects during experiences of perceived racial discrimination. Prior studies on racial bias and the brain focused exclusively on the person who was biased, not the person experiencing discrimination. Study results show that frequent, negative social treatment and discrimination-related distress may have a negative impact on long-term mental and physical health.

Related Links

Race, Race-Based Discrimination, and Health Outcomes Among African Americans (pdf) (Annual Review of Psychology)

Mental Health Correlates of Perceived Discrimination Among Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Adults in the United States (pdf) (American Journal of Public Health)

Perceived race-based discrimination, employment status, and job stress in a national sample of Black women: Implications for health outcomes (pdf) (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology)

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