Friday, June 19, 2009

Racial "Weathering" and Family Stress

Arline Geronimus argues that African Americans age faster than white people in America due to racism and stress. This has many important consequences - one of which is that waiting until their 20s to have children may not actually be healthier for black women and children, as is normally true for the American population as a whole.

Geronimus blames the faster "weathering" of African Americans on stress. She blames racism as the main source of differential stress. I think this is a plausible way of accounting for the fact that African Americans as a group are much less healthy than other Americans at the same age.

I would add, though, that there is another source of stress that is distinctively high for African Americans: the stress of single parenthood. Black Americans are especially likely to engage in the most stressful kind of single parenthood, the kind that results from never having married in the first place.

Geronimus has taken much heat for her views on racial weathering from stress. If we are looking at sources of stress, though, some are more self-inflicted than others - and thus can be addressed more directly by those enduring the stress.


TallCoolOne said...

I've often wondered this same thing, and am interested to find empirical workers coming to similar conclusions.

How would you integrate the insights of such work as "Code of the Streets" which we read in class to this analysis?

Gruntled said...

I think that is a fruitful line of inquiry. One of Anderson's main points is that even decent people in the slums have to act "street" in order not to be hassled. That would be stressful.

TallCoolOne said...

It would also be interesting, I think, if you could find some way of cross-tabulating similar sets of class data across racial/ethnic divides, AND diachronically, too.

I mean, we all know that Sinclair's "The Jungle" mercilessly shows the aging effects of working in Chicago's stockyards around 1900, but is there any way of demonstrating that with reference to real data sets? Defictionalizing it, in other words, which might just convince some "personal responsibility" lobbyists that there is a legitimate role for society to play in improving itself.

Gruntled said...

Geronimus, in her most recent research, uses a set of biological tests to measure stress. These tests could be done on various groups, to establish a stress hierarchy or taxonomy.

Black Sea said...

1. The article presupposes that racism is the primary cause of stress among African Americans.

2. The article further presupposes that the resultant stress is the primary cause of differential aging (if you want to call it that) and mortality/morbidity rates.

3. Both of these assumptions must be taken on faith, as neither can be empirically proven. I realize that Geronimus claims that her conclusions are empirically driven. People claim all sorts of things. That stress contributes to health problems seems to me well documented (although I'm not a doctor). That being poor, living in a high crime area, eating a lousy diet, having a "loose" family structure, trying to raise children alone, and so forth are strsssful seesm self-evident to me. That all of these factors are the result of racism, much less so.

4. If I remember correctly, African Americans are more likely to profess a belief in God than are whites. Perhaps this is a causal factor in differential aging and stress. (You've got an omnipotent being looking over your shoulder all of the time. What could be more stressful than that?)

5. This article has a lot more to do with politics than with science, or one might say that is politics masquerading as science.

TallCoolOne said...

Gruntled: that still leaves the diachronic dimension relatively unaddressed, which also means that there is less persuasive power in the overall thesis. As another example: it would be fantastic if someone could link this kind of research with du Bois' in _The Philadelphia Negro_. Not only would that go some way toward demonstrating the long-term effects of racism in America, it would also lend credibility to du Bois' more lyrical _Souls of Black Folk_. (As it stands, I often find people have a "yes or no" attitude to that work. If they think racism to be a real factor post-1865 -- really, post 1965 -- then they think du Bois was right. If not, then they don't.)

Black Sea: if the above were done, your #3 would be addressed. Your #4 I find gratuitous and demeaning toward the religious experiences and expressions of oppressed peoples. (About which I am highly critical, myself, but with the realization that the world looks very different to those unable to alter their situation through the normal channels.) #s 1, 2, & 5 seem essentially linked, and have to do with methodology, which I leave to those best suited to address such.

Gruntled said...

I am not persuaded that racism is the main cause of stress in African Americans lives. I think it would be very hard to test, as well.

Nonetheless, I think Geronimus makes enough of a case that black health problems could be tied to differential stress (compared to other Americans) to be worth further investigation. I agree that an over-time study would be great, but we do not have biological stress measures from the past to compare with current tests.

One could do comparative tests though. I think Native Americans, especially on reservations, might show similar weathering. It would be worth conducting systematic stress tests with them, too.

It is possible that the religious faith of African Americans adds to their differential stress. All the research I know about faith and stress, though, points in the opposite direction.

Black Sea said...

Americans of East Asian descent have the longest life spans of any ethnic group in America. I don't have morbidity statistics at hand, but given their greater longevity, I'd be willing to bet they don't "weather" as quickly as whites either. Is this the result of racial biases against whites and in favor of Asian Americans?

Low income rural whites in the Upper Midwest live, on average, four years longer than low-income rural whites in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley. The soft bigotry of low life expectancy?

Women, notoriously, live longer than men. Gender oppression? The stress of fulfilling one's expectations as man? Hormones anyone?

Depending upon the definition of "hispanic" there are stats that indicate that American Hispanics outlive whites. Refried beans reconsidered? Maybe the "manana approach" will soon be recommended by cardiologists.

Married people live longer than single people. Is that because married people gain in health from the companionship that they experience in marriage, or is it because people who are relatively stable emotionally, and make a reasonable income, and generally steer clear of a variety of destructive behaviors are more likely to get and remain married? Or is it some combination of the two? Or perhaps the stess of societal discrimination against singles is "weathering" them.

Whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. And this is the result of . . . ? Nobody really KNOWS what this is the result of. Ergo, I can claim that it's the result of whatever variable suits my argument.

I could continue, but this is getting boring. I just can't take this sort of research seriously. Anyone care to guess as to the total number of cultural, educational, physiological, experiential, and behaviorable variables that differ between blacks and whites in America? And all of these variables--other than racism--are going to be accounted for and factored out? And one can then arrive at an empirically valid result as to the extent to which, among these thousands of factors, racism is the critical variable? Yeah, right, OK. Pass the Kool-Aid.

BTW, I don't think religious belief has any relevance at all to the longevity of blacks versus whites. This example was meant to point out the ridiculously unprovable nature of the author's hypothesis. If anything, I'd expect belief in God to correlate positively with life expectancy. Although, in the case of suicide bombers . . . .

TallCoolOne said...

I guess right-wing Hegelianism really is alive and well, and majoring in sociology in several institutions of higher learning.

If racism -- or a number of other isms -- cannot be demonstrated empirically, then why bother wondering at all why some groups within societies just can't seem to succeed across time? Isn't that epistemology, not empirical analysis? It's precisely these "sociological reductions" that render suspect the otherwise excellent observations social scientists make on a regular basis.

Gruntled said...

Some aspects of racism can be demonstrated empirically. I don't know how you would show racism to be a cause of global stress, though.

Black Sea said...

I believe that the Geronimus' argument was not that racism exits (a claim which I find indisputable), but rather that racism results in physiological and psychological stress which largely explains the differential in mortality and morbidity between blacks and whites (hence the title of the article).

To demonstrate the former is a long, long, long way from demonstrating the latter.

"I guess right-wing Hegelianism really is alive and well, and majoring in sociology in several institutions of higher learning."

I took only one sociology class as a university freshman (required, if memory serves). Not to denigrate the profession, but, from an intellectual standpoint, it was an utter waste of time. However, I wouldn't extrapolate from that one experience that it always is. For that matter, if I believed that it was always a waste of time, why would I be bothered to comment here?