How Does Segregation Affect Your Health? It Has A Huge & Surprising Impact

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Racism is hardly a hidden part of America's consciousness at the moment. On the contrary, it's increasingly visible in alt-right pockets all over the country. But racism goes deeper, as we all know, than public displays. It's systematic and structural. A huge example is modern segregation, where people of color have been consistently geographically disenfranchised, isolated, and kept in areas with fewer resources and worse quality of life. And segregation has big implications for the health of Black Americans — particularly kids.

It's time for a history lesson. Segregation, always a part of America's cultural fabric, accelerated in the early 20th century; as Black Americans moved from rural areas to cities in great numbers, municipalities were allowed up to have apartheid-esque policies about separating Black and white housing and services. This wasn't an accident, explained expert Richard Rothstein to Smithsonian Magazine earlier this year: "Segregation in every metropolitan area was imposed by racially explicit federal, state and local policy, without which private actions of prejudice or discrimination would not have been very effective." Today, segregation is not put in place by law, but rather by discriminatory housing practices (enabled originally by those explicitly racist policies).

It's a rotten part of American history, and it's still ongoing. Heavily segregated minority neighborhoods have had less access to good roads, street lighting, healthcare, commuting, groceries, schools, and everything else that matters about where you live. And, crucially, living in a segregated area has bad health outcomes, too — and we're only discovering the extent now.

Segregation & Environmental Pollution

Unsplash / Nathaniel Tetteh

New, extremely depressing science out of Princeton reveals a link between the higher asthma rates of young Black kids and living in heavily segregated, geographically disadvantaged neighborhoods. For a while, we've known that Black children are far more likely to have asthma than white kids: the Center for Disease Control & Prevention noted that, as of 2015, 13.4 percent of Black kids suffered from the chronic disease, compared to 7.8 percent of white kids. (That's higher than Latinx kids, too, 8 percent of whom had it in 2015.) Figuring out why, however, has been a matter of a lot of different factors — but the Princeton study thinks they've discovered a massive one, and it's directly related to neighborhood segregation.

Previously, the Princeton scientists say, the belief was that asthma was more prevalent in Black children because they were more likely to have lower birth weight, but that alone doesn't seem to explain the issue. The researchers compared all the kids born to mothers in New Jersey between 2006 and 2010m and all the hospital visits between 2006 and 2012, and found something intriguing (and sad): asthma in Black kids seems directly related to the segregation level of their zip code.

Here's how things unfold, according to the Princeton scientists: majority Black neighborhoods are much more likely to be near industrial areas, highways, airports, and other sources of major air pollutants. They're also more likely to live in old, less-inspected houses, and to be exposed to indoor smoking. A look at segregated neighborhoods and air pollution in 2016 found that, in all but two measures, living in metropolitan areas with high segregation levels made your risk of exposure to air pollutants increase. That, in the data of the Princeton scientists, adds up to a pretty triggering mix for child asthmatics. And it's part of a bigger puzzle about how segregation continues to damage today's population across America.

Segregation Has Other Health Consequences

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The science proving that segregation is particularly bad for Black health outcomes across America is significant, to put it mildly. Segregation is linked to higher blood pressure and a higher likelihood of obesity in Black adults, and has a particularly negative association with poverty. Those Black families who live in very low-income segregated neighborhoods, according to an upcoming study in Social Science & Medicine, are pretty heavily disadvantaged when it comes to health outcomes (those in higher-income segregated neighborhoods are a little more protected, though). And these effects occur across different minority groups: segregation of U.S.-born Latinxs is also linked to poor health outcomes.

The problem is also very American in scope. Research by DePaul University in 2017 compared Toronto with Chicago, one of the most historically segregated cities in the entire country, and found something interesting. Toronto's neighborhoods, regardless of their racial composition, had the same average levels of low birth weights (which is a risk factor for poor health later in life, and can be associated with poverty, alcohol and smoking). Chicago's low birth weights, however, differed radically from district to district. The more racially segregated the area, the study found, the smaller the babies. "Toronto has broken the link between segregation and low birth weight," the lead researcher told the press. The problem, they suggest, is that segregation and poor healthcare in America combine to mean something very problematic, and that has very poor results for children in particular.

Solving the issue is complex. Professor Florence Roisman at Indiana University suggested a variety of possibilities in a paper, from fixing the Fair Housing Act to withholding federal funding for communities who can't show that their neighborhoods are desegregated. But considering the current administration's priorities, it's likely we'll be dealing with the consequences of segregation across America for decades to come.