This week I interviewed Debra Umberson, author of Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. She is a professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and last week we featured her study on this page. The study examined the grief and loss in Black families and linked them to racial differences in US life expectancy. We hear frequent news accounts of Black people dying due to police shootings along with other sources of untimely deaths. The reality of these multiplied deaths affect the Black community as a whole. Looking at movements such as Black Lives Matter and how conflicts surrounding race recently can no longer be swept under the rug, I wanted to learn more about research suggesting that Black Americans die at much higher rates than White Americans due to historical racial inequalities.
Q: Your study discusses the extreme racial disparities in exposure to the death of family members in non-Hispanic Blacks compared to whites. What brought you to investigate this topic?
DU: Several things came together to lead me to this topic. First, several years ago, I conducted in-depth interviews with Black and White respondents to learn more about how early family relationships influence health habits throughout the life course. Although it wasn’t a focus of the project, the interviews with Black respondents were filled with stories of grief and loss, starting when they were children. This was especially striking in that the Black and White respondents were very similar in education and income and the stories of White respondents rarely included stories of family member loss. Around the same time, more and more stories were surfacing in the media about premature and violent deaths of young Black men in the U.S. and their devastated parents were often featured in those reports. I started thinking about the significant Black-White race gap in U.S. life expectancy and realizing how much more pervasive loss must be in Black families.
Q: Although you hypothesized that the death of family members would be more common among Black Americans than among White Americans, did you find anything that surprised you?
DU: The extent of the race gap in loss was striking. I was somewhat surprised by how big the gap was in the risk of losing a child. Blacks are about two and half times more likely than Whites to lose a child by age 30. Between the ages of 50 and 70, Blacks are 3 times more likely than Whites to lose a child. For most family member deaths, the race gap begins to close in later life as Whites begin to more family members but that’s not the case for death of a child. Whites are much more likely than Blacks to never lose a child in their lifetime.
Q: In the context of current events such as deaths by the police, a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement, and police brutality, what is next on your research agenda?
DU: Our next step is to consider how exposure to family member deaths may contribute to racial disparities in wide-ranging life outcomes including mental health, physical health, and mortality risk. We will also consider how these effects differ for men and women across the life course. Since we know that even one family member death – whether a spouse, a child, or a parent — has significant adverse effects on health and well-being, we expect that more frequent and earlier family member losses contribute to racial disparities in health.
Bereavement rates, health & racial inequality, and criminal victimization mentioned in this research all illustrate a tragic point of view for Black Americans in the United States. With Black Americans in the news constantly this creates a sense of strain, “collective loss, and personal vulnerability” within the Black community. If Black Americans have family members—whether that be a spouse, a child, or a sibling—dying earlier in their lives, these losses only create a lifelong ripple effect for generations and reoccurring disadvantages. Whatever can help: policies, interventions, or a simple acknowledgment of bereavement and loss in these populations must be taken into effect—and fast.
Tasia Clemons is a Junior sociology major at Framingham State University, a Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.