Discrimination Affects Generations

Disparate rates of morbidity and mortality among racial groups are both a cause and a consequence of racial inequality. Previous research has shown that children whose mothers are exposed to discrimination while pregnant have poorer health than other children, demonstrating the intergenerational transmission of health. However, does health transmission also flow the other way? In the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Cynthia G. Colen and colleagues investigate how the health of mothers is affected by children’s experiences of unfair treatment.

In order to answer this question, the authors combine data from two cohorts in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: the 1979 cohort and the children of the 1979 cohort. They measure how changes in a mothers’ self-rated health between age 40 and age 50 is associated with acute and chronic discrimination. Mothers of children who reported moderate or high levels of acute and chronic discrimination reported larger declines in health than mothers of children who reported low levels of discrimination. African American mothers showed the greatest decline in health compared to white mothers. Hispanic mothers also show declines in health, but to a much smaller degree than African American mothers.

The authors argue that understanding how health is transmitted between generations is crucial to expanding our understanding of racial health disparities. We can not assume that this relationship is unidirectional, and we could consider how relationships between family members transmit stress caused by discriminatory experiences. Without this, health disparities will continue to be reinforced by experiences of unfair treatment as both mothers and children navigate the entrenched racial structure of American society.


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