Huffpost Healthy Living
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Philip N. Cohen Headshot

What Ails Black Women, Part 3: Discrimination And Repercussions

Posted: Updated:

After discussing some widening employment inequality between Black and White women, as well as large and in some cases growing health disparities, the final installment of this miniseries turns to news on racial discrimination and its repercussions for Black women, especially those who are poor. Much of the economic and health inequality we find could be the result of discrimination. Here I show some discrimination and its impact in other realms.

Discrimination takes many forms and has many consequences. But, like heavy metals in fish, it appears that its effects cumulate over the lives of its victims. New research on the mental health effects of discrimination - as crudely as this can be measured - is telling.

Our results show that perceptions of unfair treatment, like other chronic stressors, are psychologically burdensome to African American women. ... Many women suffer emotionally because they are unable to view themselves as efficacious and competent actors when treated with suspicion and confronted with dehumanizing interactions.

I have been struck by the responses to the earlier posts in this series, which tend to corroborate such research findings. On Huffington Post, one woman wrote:

As a black woman I dread going to work every day. People are blatantly rude and offensive. I have a degree and do substantial work for my company yet they treat me like I'm on work release. There have been times when some people act as though I'm not even there! But as soon as you call them out on their rude behavior you are labeled an angry black woman with an attitude. As a black person it sucks to have to hear people make stereotypical generalizations almost every day. I just keep my head down and stay out of their way. ... Every day I step out into the world I am made to feel like less of a person.

In the extreme, consider the poor Black women in the emerging case of missing women in Cleveland and Rocky Mount, North Carolina. In both situations, Black women were murdered but for a long time not reported missing - or not seriously searched for if their absence was noted. The length of time it takes the authorities to respond to your suspicious absence is a brutal but vivid indicator of social isolation.

Elizabeth Smallwood, who was never reported missing, was found dead in Rocky Mount in February, but not identified until October.

In my capacity as a demographer I have long known about the marriage market squeeze Black women feel. Mortality, incarceration and unemployment -- compounded by the statistically rare but symbolically damning greater tendency for Black men than women to marry Whites - leave not enough "marriageable" Black men, especially in urban areas where segregation further limits cross-racial social interaction. I previously showed this for a few major cities:

Source: My analysis of data from the American Community Survey, 2005-2007, retrieved from iPUMS.org.

However, now we know that even in the online dating world, where the playing field could be more level, Black women get the worst results. We recently saw the reply rates for different groups of women on the OK Cupid dating site. Despite roughly equal "compatibility" score matches, Black women got the fewest responses to their inquiries.

Worse still, perhaps, even in a virtual world, where true experiments are more feasible, researchers who varied nothing but the skin and hair color of avatars found that virtual White women were much more likely to receive favors from strangers than virtual Black women.

Why is that worse? That means all the "non-racial" factors that are said to contribute to discrimination in the real world - such as education, cultural background, social skills, etc. - couldn't have been the mechanism in this experiment. (Thanks to Karl Bakeman for this lead.)

Demographic and racism factors may also work together. If a demographic scarcity increases the relative sway of Black men in the marriage market, and racism enhances the status of light-skinned versus dark-skinned Black women, then we would expect a pattern in which dark-skinned women are less likely to be married, even controlling for other factors - and that is what Darrick Hamilton and colleagues have found, using one of the few datasets that includes information on actual skin color.

Finally, something to think about regarding consequences. Racial inequality is both individual and collective. So the crushing levels of incarceration, police repression and supervision that Black men endure take a toll on Black communities and families as well. We should pay more attention to the effects on single mothers in particular. For example, 1-in-15 Black children have a parent in prison, compared with less than 1-in-100 White children - and more than 90% of those parents are the fathers.

Source: From Chris Uggen's blog.

When the father is in prison, 88% of the time the children are cared for by the mother. That all boils down to more than a quarter-million Black mothers raising children whose fathers are not only not present to help (financially or otherwise), but are incarcerated - and will experience the consequences of that forever.

On the other hand

I can't say why, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that, despite all this, Black women questioned by the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2006 show a positive trend toward greater happiness. Black women are catching up with White women, who - despite the reports that "women" are less happy - are the ones driving the happiness trend downward.

Unlike in the economic and health posts, in this tour of discrimination issues I don't have evidence of increasing discrimination. And of course happiness is not the same as the good things we measure like jobs and income and even health and family stability. I'll leave that question to those who better understand the dynamics of internal and external sources of comfort and reward. But I don't see how challenging these many persistent - and pervasive - forms of discrimination could hurt.

First: Work and wages

Then: Health and life

Now: Discrimination and repercussions

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog

From Our Partners