Research suggests link between cardiovascular disease, racial bias

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Campus researchers have unearthed a new — and potentially deadly — link between white racial bias and heart complications in Black people as part of a study published online in Psychological Science this June.

The researchers compiled data from an online racial bias test by filtering responses from 1.4 million self-identified white people in 1,700 U.S. counties. After comparing data to health records, they found that Black people living in blatantly racist communities were more likely to suffer from fatal cardiovascular disease, while white people living in the same communities showed a similar correlation but overall lower disease incidences than their Black neighbors.

Jordan Leitner, the lead author of the study, noted that while the data revealed a “direct relationship” between racial bias and coronary disease in several counties, it did not provide evidence of causation.

“Racial disparities in health outcomes … have been pervasive over time and are very robust,” Leitner said.  “Any insight that we can gain as to why (those racial disparities) exist is valuable because it can provide insight into where we should design intervention.”

The researchers collected data from Project Implicit — a website surveying various biases — which prompts test participants to declare how “warm” they feel towards Black and white people, then associate black or white faces on the screen with positive or negative words, according to Leitner. Pairing black faces with negative words in a shorter period of time indicated a stronger mental association between the two — and, by extension, a stronger racial bias.

According to Dana Carney, an associate professor of business and researcher for the psychology department, racial bias against Black people ranges from subtle microaggressions to reduced likelihood of being hired for a position.  She added that implicit racism — which is often unconscious and unintentional — often reinforces tensions between racial groups because it is invisible.

“Even the most lovely, prosocial, motivated, egalitarian people show some degree of bias,” Carney said. “It’s there almost like a cancer, deep inside of our brains.”

Leitner said several factors could discourage Black patients from seeking medical treatment in racially biased communities — including financial barriers or concern about being treated unfairly compared to white patients — which could exacerbate untreated heart problems. He added that one future research goal was to examine the relationship between racial bias and community health over time.

Carney said implicit bias stems from cultural influences, such as media coverage on incarcerated Black men.  She added that the only way to eradicate implicit racial biases against Black people was to “attack (the bias) from the inside” by rebuffing racist jokes and embracing the intricacies of Black culture.

“Implicit bias is something that is deep in our culture,” said Carney.  “We would feel nothing but love and compassion if we rewired our brains to start introducing structural change.”

Kimberly Nielsen is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kimberlyniel_dc.