In the first national study of its kind, a UC Irvinesociologist finds that black immigrants who arrive in America fromblack-majority regions of the world are healthier than those fromwhite-majority regions; still, regardless of how healthy blackimmigrants are when they come to the U.S., the longer they stay, themore their health erodes. The findings suggest racial discrimination isa major cause of poor health for American blacks – native andforeign-born alike.
UCI’s Jen’nan Ghazal Read and RiceUniversity’s Michael O. Emerson examined the health of more than 2,900black immigrants coming from the top regions of emigration: the WestIndies, Africa, South America and Europe. Compared to U.S.-born blacks,those born in Europe – a majority-white region that most closelyresembles the U.S.’s racial structure – are the least healthy, faringno better than American-born blacks. Blacks born in Africa and SouthAmerica, where whites are the minority, are much healthier thanU.S.-born blacks. Those born in the West Indies, a racially mixedregion, are healthier than U.S.-born blacks, but less healthy thanthose from black-majority regions. According to Read, racial minoritiesare exposed to more stressful life events caused by discrimination.Stress, a key risk factor for many ailments, accumulates over the lifecourse to harm health.
The study, published in the Septemberissue of Social Forces, is the first to look at the health of blackimmigrants by their region of origin. Prior to 2000, national-levelhealth data combined all black immigrants into a single category, whichobscured the differences among them. This study shows the value ofbreaking them out as individual groups by their home region.
"Thesefindings do not bode well for the persistent black/white health gap inAmerica," said Read, an assistant professor of sociology and leadauthor of the study. "Any health advantage that black immigrants havewhen they arrive is lost as they, and then their children, blend intoAmerica’s racial landscape and suffer the consequences of being blackin the United States."
Read said she was somewhat surprised tofind that European-born blacks’ health was more similar toAmerican-born blacks than other black immigrants. Previous studies haveshown that immigrants are generally healthier than their U.S.counterparts when they come to America, primarily because of theselective nature of immigration: those who immigrate are in good healthand/or have the financial resources to make such a move. "Europeancountries have a much higher standard of living than African and theWest Indian countries – higher incomes and employment rates, betterhealth care and extended vacation time," Read said. "At the same time,the racial dynamics in many European countries are similar to those inthe U.S., and we know from studies here that blacks are exposed to morestressful life events that have negative consequences for both theirmental and physical well-being."
Read explains that although thisstudy does not provide the definitive explanation for the black/whitehealth gap in America, it encourages researchers and policy makers totake a much harder look at how racial discrimination harms health.
Theresearchers looked at three measures to assess peoples’ health:self-rated health, disability and hypertension. Their primary data camefrom the 2000-02 National Health Interview Surveys, which are conductedby the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention, and included a question on region of birth forthe first time in 2000. Additional data for the study came from theU.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Immigration Statistics and the CIA’sWorld Factbook.
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