By Chris Hoenig
A study from the University of Maryland found that, biologically speaking, Black men who had both experienced racial discrimination AND harbored an anti-Black bias themselveswhether they knew they held one or notaged quicker than other Black men, even if they had also experienced discrimination. Those who were both victims of discrimination and held a bias against other Blacks aged between 1.4 and 2.8 years faster by the time they reached age 50.
The study used a biological component known as telomeres, which shorten at a rate of 50100 base pairs each year. “Telomere length may be a better indicator of biological age, which can give us insight into variations in the cumulative ‘wear and tear’ of the organism net of chronological age,” lead study investigator Dr. David H. Chae said. “We found that the African-American men who experienced greater racial discrimination and who displayed a stronger bias against their own racial group had the shortest telomeres of those studied.”
Among the participants92 Black men between 30 and 50 years oldthose who had experienced discrimination and were found to harbor anti-Black attitudes had telomeres that were 140 base pairs shorter on average. Researchers utilized the Black-White Implicit Association Test to determine the participants’ unconscious attitudes toward racial and ethnic groups.
Black men who had experienced discrimination growing up but held pro-Black attitudes didn’t have the same telomere measurements, however. “African-American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination,” explained Chae. “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.”
Shortened telomere length is also associated with some of the health disparities already known to occur at a higher rate in Blacks, including diabetes and heart disease. There is also a direct correlation between short telomeres and an increased risk of premature death, stroke and dementia. Stress is known to increase the rate at which telomere base pairs shorten. “Stop-and-frisk policies and other forms of criminal profiling such as driving or shopping while black are inherently stressful and have a real impact on the health of African-Americans,” Chae said.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that discrimination victims accused police of racism the most, followed by employers.
“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,” Chae said. “Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old.” More research will be needed to determine other potential risk factors, including studies that follow the participants for longer periods of time.