Rutgers Researcher Exploring Effects of Racism on Immune System

Environmental factors in many predominantly African-American communities – neighborhoods fortified with bullet-proof glass and barbed wire, for example, and bus ads aggressively pushing the glories of alcohol — have long been suspected of playing a role in residents’ mental and emotional health.

Now, armed with a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a Rutgers researcher is exploring the effects of multiple layers of racism on an individual’s immune system as well.

Credit: Courtesy of Naa Oyo Kwate
kwateNaa Oyo Kwate, associate professor in both the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and in the Department of Africana Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, is leading a team conducting the Black LIFE (Linking Inequality, Feelings, and the Environment) Study.
Professor Naa Oyo Kwate rode a bike through Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant to collect data for her project.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Program, which underwrites what the agency describes as exceptionally creative new investigations, is funding the project.

Kwate’s study aims to address two unanswered questions confronting biomedical and behavioral researchers: What effect does racism have on the body, and what can society do about it?

 “Most people don’t think of racism as a social construct that affects health,” says the trained clinical psychologist, who came to Rutgers last year from Columbia University. “They think of behaviors like diet, doctor visits, and the like, not so much about how the broader processes of inequality affect a person’s ability to engage in healthy behaviors.”

The summer of 2010 found Kwate and her team biking through central Harlem in Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, shooting videos with cameras mounted on the handlebars to document signs of institutional racism. They are now coding the videos to identify such features as the retail environment and the proliferation of vacant lots.

The two predominantly African-American neighborhoods were chosen because they are similar in demographics and land-use characteristics. The researchers are interviewing a random sampling of 450 residents about their experiences with racism.

The study will measure the respondants’ immune system and metabolic function over two time points through physical tests.

Participants also will be asked whether they’ve personally experienced racism: Have store managers followed you around, presumably because of the color of your skin? Do cab drivers refuse to pick you up? Responses are expected to provide a record to help the researchers determine to what extent racial discrimination affects psychological and physical wellbeing.

 “We’re not talking about race in terms of genes, but in terms of what resources and opportunities people have access to,” she says. Social factors such as housing conditions and food availability are among the factors contributing to higher levels of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma in predominantly African-American and lower-income urban areas, she notes.

As a follow-up to the interviews and medical tests, Kwate’s study will explore a “counter-marketing” campaign designed to help neighborhood residents combat the dangers of internalizing racism’s destructive messages.

Although the details have not yet been ironed out, Kwate envisions using outdoor advertising in minority neighborhoods to deliver unembellished facts about American inequality. In the same way that concerted anti-smoking activities of the 1980s and 1990s turned a generation against Big Tobacco, she hopes the billboards will raise consciousness and counter any stressful – potentially deadly — effects of prejudice.

Kwate’s work with the NIH reflects her longtime interest in the psychological and social determinants of African-American health.  As an assistant professor at Columbia University, for example, she determined that a higher saturation of alcohol ads in black neighborhoods was associated with 16 percent higher odds of black women being problem drinkers.

In addition to the NIH, backing for her work has come from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

To learn more about Naa Oyo Kwate’s research, visit her web site: .