Physiological & Psychological Impact of Racism and Discrimination for African-Americans

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's where the Greensboro sit-ins began (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)On Feb. 1, 1960, four stools at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., sparked national media attention and lead to hundreds of subsequent sit-ins across the country. The immediate and impactful influence that these four African-American students had on the non-violence movement during the civil rights era is frequently praised, particularly during Black History Month. However, the enormous personal stress that they likely experienced as they occupied those stools is less often considered. In honor of the four African-American students and African-Americans across the diaspora, the Ethnicity and Health in America Series is raising awareness about the physiological and psychological impact of racism and discrimination as it relates to stress. The chronic condition of stress was selected because of its prevalence and impact on health within health disparity population groups (e.g., people of color), and their high association with many other chronic diseases.

Although the chronic condition of stress can have negative side effects on all persons, the unique psycho-social and contextual factors, specifically the common and pervasive exposure to racism and discrimination, creates an additional daily stressor for African-Americans. Often, African-Americans do not realize daily stressors that may affect their psychological or physiological health and so we have compiled a collection of articles and additional resources to understand the health effects that result from exposure and perception of racism and discrimination.

Young coupleTwo African-American psychologists have decades of experience and substantive knowledge in the field of mental health, in addition to significant experience working in African-American communities. A pioneer in his field, Jules Harrell, PhD, has been studying the physiological response to stress by African-Americans across the diaspora, particularly stressors, such as racism and discrimination. Harrell provides a framework on the physiological effect of stress as it relates to African-Americans and their experiences with racism and discrimination. In addition, he offers an historical overview of the examination of racism in psychology and concludes with solutions to reducing the physiological response that is harmful to produce positive health outcomes.

Second, Shawn Utsey, PhD, is interested in understanding how race-related stress impacts the physical, psychological and social well-being of African-Americans. More recently, he has examined how trauma manifests in the victims of racial violence. In his featured article, Utsey discusses the ways in which culture and contextual resources can be used to cope and buffer against the deleterious effects of race related stress.

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