04/29/2015 02:56 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2015

The Connection Between Racist Google Searches And Black Mortality Rates


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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