Racial segregation isn’t just a moral issue—it’s a dire health concern

Race matters, even here.
Race matters, even here.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Segregation has a devastating effect on black Americans’ health.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study, which found that black adults saw a significant reduction in their blood pressure once they moved out of a mostly black community to a less segregated one. The paper, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, is an important addition to a growing body of work that argues that tackling segregation isn’t just a moral issue—there are meaningful health benefits to living in a racially diverse community, especially for those disadvantaged by systemic racism.

Researchers from Northwestern University studied 2,280 black Americans already participating in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (a separate study following over 5,000 black and white Americans since 1985 to better understand heart disease). Of the 2,280 black participants, 1,861 (or 81.6%) were living in highly segregated neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Oakland, California.

Researchers followed the participants for 25 years. During that time period some moved from a highly segregated area to a less segregated area, while others moved between highly segregated neighborhoods. While almost all participants moved, it was the ones who moved to a less segregated area that experienced a drop in blood pressure. Researchers note their systolic blood pressure, the top number in a blood pressure reading, was three to five points lower. This reduction in blood pressure persisted even when researchers controlled for income and education.

While the drop in blood pressure may not seem that significant, these small decreases can make a big difference in communities more prone to heart disease. In the US, nearly 44% of African-American men and 48% of African-American women have some form of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans is one of the highest in the world.

The study doesn’t offer a definitive answer as to why living in a less segregated community correlated with lower blood pressure. But the researchers suggest the drop could be down to more economic opportunities being available to black people in less segregated areas, which could reduce stress, and access to better schools for their children. Residents in less segregated areas could also end up living closer to parks, gyms, pharmacies, and healthier grocery stores.

The study only looked at black Americans, and didn’t examine the effect of segregation on white Americans. But the findings echo other research, which has shown that white Americans living in mostly white neighborhoods don’t suffer the health penalty that blacks in mostly black neighborhoods do. The average white American lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white, with better quality housing and less exposure to environmental toxins. Indeed, one study compared rich whites with rich black Americans and found that even at a high income level, whites have better health—suggesting that systemic racism, not just economic disparity, is in play.

The study isn’t the first to find a link between segregation and individual health outcomes (previous research has shown that living in segregated neighborhood in Chicago can shave more than a decade from your life). The new report builds on those previous studies, and the researchers urged policymakers to develop desegregation programs in the US to better tackle racial health disparities.