Racism's Toll on Health

Racism's Toll on Health

It’s the kind of experience that would haunt any kid: you’re at a soccer game, and you look up and see members of the Ku Klux Klan, in their robes, handing out pamphlets. The kid was Derek Griffith, and he’s now an expert on racism and its impact on health, but back then he was a bewildered child trying to understand why one group of people would choose to hate another simply because of their skin color. “Intuitively it just didn’t make sense to me, why people would have these feelings,” he remembers.

Today, as an assistant research scientist in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, an associate director of evaluation for the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, and an assistant director for research and research training for the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health, Griffith devotes his energies to studying racism—specifically, its effects on health and health care.

“My goal is to move race and racism from the margins of the discussion about health disparities to the center,” he says. “We tend not to acknowledge that the public health and health care systems were set up at a time when Jim Crow—legal segregation—was at its strongest in this country, and they were not designed to treat people equally. We haven’t done anything to go back and address these inequities or fundamentally change systems that were inherently unequal.”

Through his work at the PRC, for example, which conducts community-based prevention research aimed at improving health status among populations experiencing a disproportionate share of poor health outcomes, Griffith has found that compared to whites, African-American residents of Flint, Michigan, suffer health disparities “across the board,” whether it’s infant mortality, cancer, nutrition, youth violence, or HIV/AIDS and a myriad of other health issues.

One way to help address these disparities is to “put health back into the context of people’s lives,” Griffith says. “Typically we treat health as a separate entity, but people’s access to fruits and vegetables and their access to jobs both have a major impact on their health.” There’s no grocery store in the city of Flint, for example, so it’s little surprise that nutrition among inner-city residents is poor.

Through quantitative as well as qualitative research, such as focus groups, Griffith is trying to find ways to understand how these social inequities influence people’s opportunities to be healthy and disparities in quality of care. He’s especially interested in the health of African-American men, because they have the poorest health outcomes of any population in the United States. Griffith wants to know what it is “about the intersection of race and gender that makes this so.”

African-American patients of both genders spend less time with their health-care providers than white Americans and overall receive a poorer quality of care, according to a recent Institute of Medicine study. Griffith is seeking answers to that conundrum as well.

Ultimately, he wants to get to the bottom of racism itself. “Until we’re willing to address how we move from slavery to segregation to how we are today—until we’re really willing to deal with that,” he says, “I don’t see how we’re going to eliminate health or health-care disparities.”

Photo by Peter Smith.

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