African Americans are less healthy than their white counterparts. There are lots of causes for this: food deserts, lack of access to healthcare, an absence of recreational opportunities in low income neighborhoods, and more. Arguably, these are indirect effects of racist individuals and institutions, leading to the disinvestment in predominantly black neighborhoods and the economic disempowerment of black people.
This post, though, is about a direct relationship between racism and health mediated by stress. Experiencing discrimination has been shown to have both acute and long-term effects on the body. Being discriminated against changes the biometrics that indicate stress and personal reports of stress (anxiety, depression, and anger). Bad health outcomes are the result.
A new study, published in PLOS One, adds another layer to the accumulating evidence. To get a strong measure of “area racism” — the prevalence of racist beliefs in a specific geographic area — epidemiologist David Chae and his colleagues counted how often internet users searched for the “n-word” on Google (ending in -er or -ers, but not -a or -as). This, they argued, is a good measure of the likelihood that an African American will experience discrimination. Here are their findings for area racism:
They then measured the rate at which black people over 25 in those areas die and the death rate from the four most common causes of death for that population: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. They also included a series of control variables to attempt to isolate the predictive power of area racism.
The resulting data offer support for the idea that area racism increases mortality among African Americans. Chae and his colleagues summarize, saying that areas in which Google searches for the n-word are one standard deviation above the mean have an 8.2% increase in mortality among Blacks. The searches were related, also, to an increase in the rates of cancer, heart disease, and stroke. “This,” they explain, “amounts to over 30,000 [early] deaths among Blacks annually nationwide.”
When they controlled for area level demographics and socioeconomic variables, the magnitude of the effect dropped from 8.2% to 5.7%. But these factors, they argued, “are also influenced by racial prejudice and discrimination and therefore could be on the causal pathway.” In other words, it’s not NOT racism that’s making up that 2.5% difference.
Studies show that people will often act in ways consistent with how they are treated. Therefore, treating someone according to a stereotype will likely produce behavior that confirms the stereotype. This is called a self-fulfilling stereotype.
I hated pretty much everything and everybody. I just wanted to pass out in the gutter and swear at cars as they went by, shit like that. I wasn’t a happy person at all. That’s why I got the skull tattooed on my face in the first place, I suppose—I wanted to fucking kill everybody.
But that’s not how it worked out. His tattoos didn’t freak everyone out and ruin their day; people loved them. They flocked to him. They complimented him and took pictures with him. And Genest began to feel… good.
…since having them done I’ve become a much happier and nicer person… I started getting all this positive feedback – people would come up to me and say how cool they thought it looked. I started getting invited to parties and bars all the time. Strangers ask to have pictures taken with me.
I’ve been having so much fun with it that life has definitely changed for the better. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing… not that I have much choice in the matter.
So basically his tattoos were a big fuck you to the world. He “hated pretty much everything and everybody.” But they inspired others to start treating him positively and, in response, he became a positive person.
Sometime after this article was published, Genest was “discovered” and since then he’s done quite a bit of modeling and acting. His life is certainly different now, but the happiness his tattoos brought him didn’t come from the fame and fortune, it came before all that, just from people being friendly. An awesome example of the self-fulfilling stereotype.
At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.
According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.
So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?
Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.
Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.
White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.
Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”
The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.
At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters. It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it. So, I offer you this:
The original figure is on the left. It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida. A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.
What do you see?
Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed. But that’s not what the graph shows. A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800). The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most. A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths. The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.
The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.
This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data. The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound. It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information. The alternative is to be duped.
Yesterday I wrote about how the money spent on adult Halloween revelry now rivals, or even exceeds, that spent on kids. This may seem like a surprising shift, but it turns out it’s the focus on children that’s new. Halloween as the kid holiday we know it in the U.S. today was really invented in the 1950s.
This, and more fun facts about the history of Halloween, in this two-minute History Channel summary:
I don’t yet have a copy of Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Based on his Pulitzer-prize winning reporting for the New York Times, however, I’m afraid it’s unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the relationship between mobile phones and motor vehicle accidents. Worse, I fear it distracts attention from the most important cause of traffic fatalities: driving.
A bad sign
The other day Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teens than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.
In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book:
In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or someone they got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsdaynumber of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cellphone effects).
After I contacted him to complain about that 11-teens-per-day statistic, Richtel pointed out that the page I linked to is run by his publisher, not him, and that he had asked them to “deal with that stat.” I now see that the page includes a footnote that says, “Statistic taken from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Fatality Facts.” I don’t think that’s true, however, since the “Fatality Facts” page for teenagers still shows 2,228 teens (passengers and drivers) killed in 2012. Richtel added in his email to me:
As I’ve written in previous writings, the cell phone industry also takes your position that fatality rates have fallen. It’s a fair question. Many safety advocates point to air bags, anti-lock brakes and wider roads — billions spent on safety — driving down accident rates (although accidents per miles driven is more complex). These advocates say that accidents would’ve fallen far faster without mobile phones and texting. And they point out that rates have fallen far faster in other countries (deaths per 100,000 drivers) that have tougher laws. In fact, the U.S. rates, they say, have fallen less far than most other countries. Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on this. I think it’s a worthy issue for conversation.
I appreciate his response. Now I’ll read the book before complaining about him any more.
The shocking truth
I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.
That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on makeup; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)
Beyond the general complaint about misleading people and abusing our ignorance, however, the texting scare distracts us (I know, it’s ironic) from the giant problem staring us in the face: our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).
What does predict deaths? Driving. This isn’t a joke. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s the answer:
If you’re interested, I also put both of these variables in a regression, along with age and sex composition of the states, and the percentage of employed people who drive to work. Only the miles and drive-to-work rates were correlated with vehicle deaths. Mobile phone subscriptions had no effect at all.
Failing to find a demographic predictor that accounts for any of the variation after that explained by miles driven, I tried one more thing. I calculated each state’s deviation from the line predicted by miles driven (for example Alaska, where they only drive 6.3 thousand miles per person, is predicted to have 4.5 deaths per 100,000 but they actually have 8.1, putting that state 3.6 points above the line). Taking those numbers and pouring them into the Google correlate tool, I asked what people in those states with higher-than-expected death rates are searching for. And the leading answer is large, American pickup trucks. Among the 100 searches most correlated with this variable, 10 were about Chevy, Dodge, or Ford pickup trucks, like “2008 chevy colorado” (r = .68), shown here:
I could think of several reasons why places where people are into pickup trucks have more than their predicted share of fatal accidents.
So, to sum up: texting while driving is dangerous and getting more common as driving is getting safer, but driving still kills thousands of Americans every year, making it the umbrella social problem under which texting may be one contributing factor.
I used this analogy before, and the parallel isn’t perfect, but the texting panic reminds me of the 1970s “Crying Indian” ad I used to see when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. The ad famously pivoted from industrial pollution to littering in the climactic final seconds:
Conclusion: Keep your eye on the ball.
Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away?
The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here. The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?
Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011. In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all. The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.
Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died. According to The Economist:
The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.
The article includes this graphic:
I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<
You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.
The executed is a woman named Ruth Snyder, convicted of murdering her husband. The photographer was a journalist named Tom Howard. Cameras were not allowed in the execution room, but Howard snuck a device in under his pant leg. Prison officials weren’t happy, but the paper was overjoyed.
The fact that the image was placed on the front page with the aggressive headline “DEAD!” suggests that editors expected the photograph to have an impact. Summarizing at Time, Erica Fahr Campbell writes:
The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.
It is one thing to know that executions are happening and another to see it, if mediated, with one’s own eyes.
Pictures can powerfully alter the dynamics of political debates. Lennart Nilsson‘s famous series of photographs of fetuses, for example, humanized and romanticized the unborn. They also erased pregnant women, making it easier to think of the fetus as an independent entity. A life, even.
Unfortunately, Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates. To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions. What if things were different? How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today? And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?