National study shows black immigrants' health erodes the longer they live in US

September 15, 2005

In the first national study of its kind, sociologists from Rice University and University of California (UC)-Irvine find that black immigrants who arrive in America from black-majority regions of the world are healthier than those from white-majority regions; but regardless of how healthy blacks 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.

Rice's Michael Emerson and UC-Irvine's Jen'nan Read examined the health of about 3,000 black immigrants coming from the top regions of black emigration: The Caribbean, Africa, South America and Europe. The researchers focused on three measures of health: self-rated health, disability and hypertension.

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 small minority, are much healthier than U.S.-born blacks. Those born in the Caribbean, a racially mixed region, are healthier than U.S.-born blacks but less healthy than those from Africa and South America. According to Emerson and 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 home region.

"These findings point to the persistent black/white health gap in the United States," said Emerson, the Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Professor of Sociology and director of the new Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life. "Whatever health advantage black immigrants have when they arrive is lost as they, and then their children, become part of the U.S. racial landscape and experience the consequences of being black in America."

Emerson and Read reported that European-born blacks' health was more similar to American-born blacks' than to other black immigrants'. Previous studies have shown that immigrants are 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 Caribbean countries," Emerson 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 their mental and physical health."

Emerson and Read noted that although this study does not provide the definitive explanation for the black/white health gap in the U.S., it encourages researchers and policy-makers to take a much harder look at how racial discrimination harms health.

Primary data on health assessment for the study came from the 2000-2002 National Health Interview Surveys, which were conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional data for the study came from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Immigration Statistics and the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.

Rice University

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