There has long been speculation that the stressors of racism shorten the life span of African-Americans, and now researchers have medical evidence: A new study reveals that being the victim of racism and internalizing racist beliefs may speed up the aging process.
The study showed that Black men who had the most experiences with discrimination and had the strongest negative attitudes about their own racial group had shorter lengths of telomeres, the nucleotides at the end of a chromosome that protect genetic material from breaking down.
The shorter telomere is a sign of cellular aging. The telomeres are likened to the caps at the end of shoelaces that prevent the string from fraying. As cells get older, the telomeres become shorter, leaving less of a shield for the important parts of the DNA.
The finding, published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, may go far in explaining why African- Americans have shorter life expectancies than whites.
The accumulated effect of years of driving while Black, shopping while Black, and encounters with racism and police — such as officers engaged in New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy who stopped more than 4-million men over the course of the last decade—85 percent of them Black and Latino — can have a deleterious effect on the health of Black men, the research shows.
“Despite the limitations of our study, we contribute to a growing body of research showing that social toxins disproportionately impacting African-American men are harmful to health,” lead investigator Dr. David H. Chae, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, explained. “Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old.”
The study involved 92 African-American men between the ages of 30 to 50, who were asked about discrimination they had faced in their lives—at work, in the search for housing, during customer service interactions at stores or restaurants, in interactions with police, and in other public domains. The men also took a test called the Black-White Implicit Association Test, which is used to measure attitudes and beliefs toward racial groups that people might be unaware of or unwilling to discuss.
The researchers concluded that participants who experienced the highest amounts of racism in conjunction with having the highest scores on the racist beliefs test had the shortest telomeres—equivalent to an additional 1.4 to 2.8 additional years of aging for those with the highest levels of racial discrimination.
However, there was no link between racial discrimination and telomere length among men who had pro-African-American attitudes.
“African-American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination,” Chae said. “In contrast, those who have internalized an anti-Black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres.”