Sunday, July 15, 2007

But this isn't a problem since we don't have racism anymore

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

In Sweatt v. Painter, supra, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities, this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, supra, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:
"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system."

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

When Brown v. Board was handed down, it was widely derided for this language--relying on something as ethereal as the "feeling[s] of inferiority" of black schoolchildren who might feel bad because of segregation, despite having supposedly equal schools as whites.

However, not all of racism's effects are so intangible:
FOUR YEARS AGO, researchers identified a surprising price for being a black woman in America. The study of 334 midlife women, published in the journal Health Psychology, examined links between different kinds of stress and risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Black women who pointed to racism as a source of stress in their lives, the researchers found, developed more plaque in their carotid arteries -- an early sign of heart disease -- than black women who didn't. The difference was small but important -- making the report the first to link hardening of the arteries to racial discrimination.

The study was just one in a fast-growing field of research documenting how racism literally hurts the body. More than 100 studies -- most published since 2000 -- now document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health. Some link blood pressure to recollected encounters with bigotry. Others record the cardiovascular reactions of volunteers subjected to racist imagery in a lab. Forthcoming research will even peek into the workings of the brain during exposure to racist provocations.

Scientists caution that the research is preliminary, and some of it is quite controversial, but they say the findings could profoundly change the way we look at both racism and health. It could unmask racism as a bona fide public health problem -- just as reframing child abuse and marital violence as public health concerns transformed the way we thought about these ubiquitous but often secret sources of suffering. Viewing racial discrimination as a health risk could open the door to understanding how other climates of chronic mistreatment or fear seep into the body -- why, for instance, pregnant women in California with Arabic names were suddenly more likely than any other group to deliver low birth-weight babies in the six months after 9/11.


For decades, experts have agreed that racial disparities in health spring from pervasive social and institutional forces. The scientific literature has linked higher rates of death and disease in American blacks to such "social determinants" as residential segregation, environmental waste, joblessness, unsafe housing, targeted marketing of alcohol and cigarettes, and other inequities.

But the new work draws on a different vein of research. In the early 1980s, Duke University social psychologist Sherman James, introduced his now-classic "John Henryism" hypothesis. The name comes from the legendary 19th-century "steel-driving" railroad worker who competed against a mechanical steam drill and won -- only to drop dead from what today would probably be diagnosed as a massive stroke or heart attack. In James's work, people who churn out prodigious physical and mental effort to cope with chronic life stresses are said to score high on John Henryism. James showed that blacks with high John Henryism but low socioeconomic position pay a physical price, with higher rates of blood pressure and hypertension.

Racism, other research suggests, acts as a classic chronic stressor, setting off the same physiological train wreck as job strain or marital conflict: higher blood pressure, elevated heart rate, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, suppressed immunity. Chronic stress is also known to encourage unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and eating too much, that themselves raise the risk of disease.

In the 1990s, Harvard School of Public Health social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger pushed the hypothesis further. She confirmed that experiences of race-based discrimination were associated with higher blood pressure, and that an internalized response -- not talking to others about the experience or not taking action against the inequity -- raised blood pressure even more. A controversial finding at the time, it has since been replicated by other investigators: The suppressed inner turmoil after a racist encounter can set off a cascade of ill effects.


Collectively, these studies of the racism-health link have tied experiences of discrimination to poorer self-reported health, smoking, low-birth-weight deliveries, depressive symptoms, and especially to cardiovascular effects. In the mid-1980s scientists began to take advantage of the controlled conditions of the laboratory. When African-American volunteers are hooked up to blood-pressure monitors, for example, and then exposed to a racially provocative vignette on tape or TV -- such as a white store clerk calling a black customer a racist epithet -- the volunteers' blood pressures rise, their heart rates jump, and they take longer than normal to recover from both reactions. Perhaps, scientists reasoned, the effort of a lifetime of bracing for such threats prolongs the effect.

More recently, the lab has moved out into the real world. Several investigations have linked blood pressure to real-time experiences of stress and discrimination as recorded in electronic diaries. In one yet-to-be-published study, Elizabeth Brondolo, a psychologist at St. John's University, found that daytime experiences of racism led to elevated nighttime blood pressure, suggesting that the body couldn't turn off its stress response.

No comments: