Background Information About the Ethnicity and Health in America Series

Over the past several decades, we have seen incredible medical advances in the United States, leading to the virtual elimination of some infectious diseases and extending the average life Mother and childexpectancy of many Americans (Kochanek et al, 2011). Yet, despite increased knowledge of disease correlates, risk factors, and other advances in the field, drastic inequities in the health status of ethnic minorities in the United States continue to persist. In 1985, the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health (Heckler, 1985) placed a national spot light on the disparate state of health and health care among people of color and the establishment of several federal office to address the inequities highlighted in the report soon followed (both DHHS and CDC established Offices of Minority Health in the mid 1980s). Now over two decades later, health care providers have continued the fight to reduce disparities, which cut across various areas of health, including chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, HIV, substance abuse and mental health.

Young manScientists suggest that a complex interaction of factors contribute to these disparities, not the least of which is a context of social and economic inequities that foster disparities in healthcare (IOM, 2001). Additionally, the daily exposure to institutional racism and discrimination that many ethnic minorities face creates an environment of oppression that increases the psychological burden they experience, ultimately contributing to negative health and mental health outcomes (Goode & Dunne, 2003). Importantly, research shows that modifiable psychological and behavioral factors also play a role in the maintenance of many chronic illnesses, pointing to a role for psychologists and other social scientists in the fight to eliminate health disparities.

By using advances in the social sciences, psychologists can help communities of color take control over their health. Working with these communities, psychologists can help to develop culturally appropriate interventions which support and honor community practices that are protective, while helping to change those practices that may have a negative impact on health (Bronheim & Sockalingam, 2003).

Tiffany G. Townsend, PhD
Senior Director of OEMA 

Annual Themes

2013 Ethnic Groups and Stress
2012 Health Disparities in Communities of Color


Bronheim, S., Sockalingam, S. (2003). A guide to choosing and adapting culturally and linguistically competent health promotion materials. Washington, DC: National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. 

Goode, T. D. & Dunne, C. (2003). Policy Brief 1: Rationale for Cultural Competence in Primary Care. Washington, DC: National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. 

Heckler, M. M. (1985). Report of the secretary’s task force on Black & minority health. Washington, DC: United States Department of Health and Human Services. 

Institute of Medicine (2001). Unequal Treatment: Confronting racial and ethnic disparities in health care.  Smedley, B., Stith, A. & Nelson, A.  (Eds.). Washington, DC. 

Kochanek, M.A., Xu, J., Murphy, S.L., Minino, A.M, & Kung, HC. (2011). Deaths: Preliminary data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports, 59(4). (PDF, 888KB) Retrieved January 16, 2012 from the CDC. 

Townsend, T.G.  & Belgrave, F.Z. (2009). Eliminating health disparities: Challenges for African American psychologists. Journal of Black Psychology, 35(2), 146-153.