Anxiety among whites about losing social status to African-Americans and other racial minorities could be linked to rising short-term mortality rates for the group, a new study suggests.
Analyzing administrative mortality and social survey data from 2000 until 2016, public health researchers at the University of Toronto found that the threat of losing status and certain privileges is seemingly a major driver for increased deaths among white Americans.
Arjumand Siddiqi, lead author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, called the findings “startling.”
“For perhaps the first time, we’re suggesting that a widespread population health phenomenon can’t be explained by actual social or economic status disadvantage, but instead is driven by a perceived threat to status,” she told U of T News.
The report, published in the December 2019 edition of “Population Health,” showed the worst outcomes were concentrated among uneducated whites. However, evidence of the damaging trend was found across all educational backgrounds.
“The anxiety of whites is coming from a misperception that their dominant status in society is being threatened, which is manifesting in multiple forms of psychological [and] physiological stress,” Siddiqi explained, saying these stressors are leading to more “deaths of despair” due to alcoholism, drug use, overdoses and suicides.
This is despite the fact there’s zero evidence showing that white people are struggling to keep up or are somehow worse off.
In the study, researchers highlighted the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, whose divisive and incendiary rhetoric has stoked fears of a racial threat against white Americans. Moreover, survey data showed that those who supported Trump, 73, had fears about increased racial diversity in the U.S. and the nation’s interdependence with a growing, globalized world.
“Status is a major predictor of health so our team hypothesized that it was a perception among whites that Blacks are economically catching up to them, when, in fact, income inequality and other socioeconomic factors continue to affect Black Americans more unfavourably,” Siddiqi said.
Black mortality rates have outpaced those of white Americans for decades. A study published by the University of Michigan last month concluded that various forms of discrimination were associated with poor health outcomes for Black folks, including increased risk of suicide among African-American men.
However, data shows the mortality rates of Blacks have been on the decline since 1999, while mortality rates for working-age whites have done just the opposite, the study author said.
“With the very real rise in economic instability over the last several decades, we’d expect mortality rates to rise in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups of all races,” Siddiqi said. “But this isn’t the case.
“Instead we’re seeing a striking reversal among working-age whites, which seems to be driven principally by anxiety among whites about losing social status to blacks … which is a newly identified population health phenomenon that requires further research,” she concluded.