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The Connection Between Racist Google Searches And Black Mortality Rates

04/29/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015
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A new study shows a chilling correlation between the number of racist Google searches in an area and the long-term mortality rates of the black people living there.

Pervasive racism is "a social toxin that, over time, leads to premature mortality,” David Chae, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post.

"Racism gets under the skin and becomes embodied," he said. "It chips away at you."

Chae, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, determined how racist a geographic area was by how frequently an epithet for African-Americans appeared in area Google searches. Internet searches are a good way of measuring societal attitudes, Chae said, because people don't self-censor in their own homes.

Areas with the most searches for the epithet "n*****" had the highest mortality rates among African-Americans, found the study, which Chae and seven coauthors published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The result of racism was noticeable even when the researchers adjusted for the size of the black population and for the fact that black Americans tend to be poorer and suffer more from chronic diseases.

African-Americans living in areas where many people are Google-searching for a racial epithet are 8.2 percent more likely than whites to die of any cause, the study found. Controlling for other social factors, black Americans are still 5.7 percent more likely to die. They are especially susceptible to ailments that kill the most people: cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Chae has a few possible explanations for blacks' higher mortality. De facto segregation pushes blacks to live in "health-damaging environments," he said: areas with higher crime, poor health care and low-paying jobs. In poor neighborhoods, healthy food is more expensive and there are fewer places to exercise, he added.

Frequent Google searches for a racial epithet serve as another indicator of racial attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination in an area, the study said. What's more, Chae added, continued disrespect and micro-aggressions that black Americans experience create physiological problems over time, like accelerated cellular aging and inflammation, which in turn increase mortality.

Chae got the idea for the study from a New York Times article that compared the prevalence of racially charged Google searches in certain areas with Barack Obama's performance in the 2008 presidential election. The article found Obama underperformed in the areas with the most racially charged search terms.

“I was really intrigued by the study because it’s an indirect way of researching attitudes," Chae said. After reading the article, Chae emailed its author, Harvard economics professor Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, to suggest they collaborate on a study comparing Google searches with black mortality rates.

Of course, not everybody who searches for a racial epithet is racist. Chae concedes that some people might be looking for the historical origins of the word, for example. But Chae is certain that aggregating millions of Google searches yields a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Conversations about racism in America tend to focus on violent events, most recently the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent protests and riots. But Chae finds racism is akin to an environmental hazard like pollution.

"I view racism as being a social toxin that over time leads to premature mortality," he said.

“Racism kills people," Chae said. "That’s not breaking news at all."

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    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man throws an object at officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers pepper spray people near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers look for people throwing objects at them near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man who was pepper sprayed has his eyes washed out near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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    A man, center, shields himself after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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    A protestor, left, fights with a bar patron outside of a bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a rally for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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    Police detain a man after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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    Two men are on the ground after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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    Men carry items, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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    An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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    A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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    A protester with a stolen police vest taunts Baltimore police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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    Police with shields face a man near the subway station at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD, USA, on Monday, April 27, 2015. People threw rocks at police and members of the media near the mall during riots Monday afternoon. Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, people gather near a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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    Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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    Baltimore police officers respond to demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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    A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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    A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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    A boy throws a brick at police, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, smoke rises from a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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