In the first national study of its kind, a UC Irvine sociologist finds that black immigrants who arrive in America from black-majority regions of the world are healthier than those from white-majority regions; still, regardless of how healthy black immigrants are when they come to the U.S., the longer they stay, the more their health erodes. The findings suggest racial discrimination is a major cause of poor health for American blacks – native and foreign-born alike.
UCI's Jen'nan Ghazal Read and Rice University's Michael O. Emerson examined the health of more than 2,900 black immigrants coming from the top regions of emigration: the West Indies, Africa, South America and Europe. Compared to U.S.-born blacks, those born in Europe – a majority-white region that most closely resembles the U.S.'s racial structure – are the least healthy, faring no better than American-born blacks. Blacks born in Africa and South America, where whites are the minority, are much healthier than U.S.-born blacks. Those born in the West Indies, a racially mixed region, are healthier than U.S.-born blacks, but less healthy than those from black-majority regions. According to Read, racial minorities are exposed to more stressful life events caused by discrimination. Stress, a key risk factor for many ailments, accumulates over the life course to harm health.
The study, published in the September issue of Social Forces, is the first to look at the health of black immigrants by their region of origin. Prior to 2000, national-level health data combined all black immigrants into a single category, which obscured the differences among them. This study shows the value of breaking them out as individual groups by their home region.
"These findings do not bode well for the persistent black/white health gap in America," said Read, an assistant professor of sociology and lead author of the study. "Any health advantage that black immigrants have when they arrive is lost as they, and then their children, blend into America's racial landscape and suffer the consequences of being black in the United States."
Read said she was somewhat surprised to find that European-born blacks' health was more similar to American-born blacks than other black immigrants. Previous studies have shown that immigrants are generally healthier than their U.S. counterparts when they come to America, primarily because of the selective nature of immigration: those who immigrate are in good health and/or have the financial resources to make such a move. "European countries have a much higher standard of living than African and the West Indian countries – higher incomes and employment rates, better health care and extended vacation time," Read said. "At the same time, the racial dynamics in many European countries are similar to those in the U.S., and we know from studies here that blacks are exposed to more stressful life events that have negative consequences for both their mental and physical well-being."
Read explains that although this study does not provide the definitive explanation for the black/white health gap in America, it encourages researchers and policy makers to take a much harder look at how racial discrimination harms health.
The researchers looked at three measures to assess peoples' health: self-rated health, disability and hypertension. Their primary data came from the 2000-02 National Health Interview Surveys, which are conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and included a question on region of birth for the first time in 2000. Additional data for the study came from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Immigration Statistics and the CIA's World Factbook.