The national theme for Black History Month 2022, “Black Health and Wellness,” is a subject that USC researchers discuss year-round. Some of the largest public health and medical organizations in the country have declared racism itself a public health crisis, drawing attention to racial discrimination’s harm to health.
Experts across the university have made racism the focus of their work in multiple contexts: maternal, fetal and infant mortality; homelessness; poverty; Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
The evidence that USC researchers have uncovered demonstrating the links between racism and health issues underscores that prejudice in America’s communities, politics and economic systems is a serious detriment to Black Americans.
For example, Tyan Parker Dominguez, a clinical professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, studies racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes and infant mortality.
“Of all major racial and ethnic groups in the country, African American women are more likely to deliver babies too early or too small, to bury them before their first birthday and to die in pregnancy, during delivery or in the postpartum year,” Parker Dominguez said.
“African American women are not simply ‘wired’ this way. Rather, research into the social determinants of health indicates that the context of our lives matters. Long-standing health inequities are the physical consequence of pervasive and enduring social inequities.”
Inequities are widespread, statistics show. But the harmful effects of racism are manifest on Los Angeles’ streets. The high homelessness rate for people of color is evidence of “residential segregation” in Ricky Bluthenthal’s research.
Black people comprise about 13% of the U.S. population, but they account for 39% of homeless individuals and approximately half of all homeless families with children.
“The disproportionate impact of homelessness on African Americans is due to systematic racism that excludes our populations from educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and housing opportunities. That’s been the case historically, and it continues to this day,” said Bluthenthal, an associate dean for social justice and a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Institute for Prevention Research at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
“We have a problem with our political economy, where large corporations suppress wages to keep them as low as possible,” he said. “We are generating more unhoused people than we can build housing for and it’s because of these systems: structural racism, a political economy that keeps wages low, and high housing costs in places like Los Angeles.”
Health disparities: Why representation matters in Alzheimer’s research
Doris Molina-Henry, an assistant professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, has her sights on helping solve one of the biggest health challenges facing the world today – Alzheimer’s disease.
“Black adults in the United States are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and this is coupled with very limited representation in clinical trials [less than 5%] — an essential pathway for the testing and approval of medications,” said Molina-Henry, whose work at USC’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute in San Diego focuses on recruiting participants for clinical trials.
“This can have unfortunate implications for Black community members who are two times at higher risk, less likely to be diagnosed and carry a significant proportion of the financial and caregiving burden. Black participation in Alzheimer’s research that aims to treat, slow, or prevent the disease is imperative to the preservation of the unique cultural richness of the Black community.”
Inspiration tucked into the middle of hardship
In spite of these challenges, Parker Dominguez finds inspiration tucked into a concept called “Sojourner syndrome.” The concept, named for Sojourner Truth, the famous 19th century former slave turned evangelist, abolitionist and activist, “refers to the constellation of class, race and gender oppression that Black women experience, which intensifies their risk for adverse health outcomes.”
“Sojourner syndrome also recognizes the tremendous resilience of Black women who historically have had to make a way out of no way, to keep on keeping on as the heart and soul of their families and pivotal leaders in their communities,” Parker Dominguez said.