Written by:
Lester Holloway

The link between racism and children's poor health

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Babies born to mothers who suffer racism have health disadvantages which starts from inside the womb, writes Dr Laia Bécares

Experiencing racial discrimination is harmful to health, as the increased stress that results from experiences of racism leads to a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Racial discrimination is also associated with poor health through socio-economic inequality, as racial discrimination leads to poorer employment opportunities, reduced income, and increased chances of living in a deprived neighbourhood.

The association between racial discrimination and poor health is longstanding, and has been documented in several countries, including in the UK. Research shows that racism is prevalent, and that adults who report experiencing racial discrimination at some point in their lives have worse mental and physical health than adults who don’t report experiencing racial discrimination.

Dr Laia Bécares
Dr Laia Bécares

Although most studies have been done with adults, we know that the harm of racism and discrimination on health starts early in life. Studies in the US show that babies of mothers who have been discriminated against are more likely to be born low birthweight, as compared to babies of mothers of similar age and socioeconomic standing who have not experienced racism and discrimination.

These findings are relevant to the UK, where Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean infants are more likely to be low birthweight than White infants. Low birthweight has implications for health and cognitive function during childhood, adolescence and well into adulthood, which means that as soon as they are born, some ethnic minority children are already at a disadvantage.

And disadvantage caused by racism accumulates as children grow up. Setting aside the influence of socio-economic inequalities on health and development (which are in themselves patterned by racism and discrimination), and focusing only on reported experiences of interpersonal discrimination, we have shown that maternal experiences of racism and discrimination during early childhood are associated with lower cognitive scores.

Using nationally representative data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, we find that ethnic minority children growing up in an environment where experiences of racial discrimination are common – this is, where their mothers are racially insulted, treated disrespectfully and unfairly because of their ethnicity, and where their family members are also treated unfairly because of their ethnicity – score lower on cognitive tests when they are 5 years old, and are more likely to suffer from socio-emotional problems as they grow up, as compared to ethnic minority children of the same age and similar socio-economic conditions whose mothers and family members have not experienced racial discrimination.

We also find that 5-year old ethnic minority children who live in neighbourhoods where racial insults or attacks are common are more likely to have socio-emotional difficulties and lower cognitive test scores than ethnic minority children with similar socio-demographic characteristics, but who live in less racist neighbourhoods.

These findings signal the influence of racism and discrimination in the environments – inside the womb, within a family, and in a neighbourhood - where children are growing up, but do not measure the health consequences of the racism and discrimination that children experience themselves. This direct association between children’s own experiences of racial discrimination and poorer health exists, as shown by several studies.

These are only a few examples of the burden of racism and discrimination on the health of ethnic minorities from birth to childhood. In later stages of life, add to this accumulation of disadvantage the well-documented harm of racism and discrimination on adult health, and the overarching effects of structural racism – including differential access to employment opportunities, good-quality housing, and residence in deprived neighbourhoods, on life chances and, ultimately, on health.


The impact of dealing with disadvantage through the life course - what Arline Geronimus has called the ‘Weathering hypothesis’ - wears down the body’s organs and tissues, particularly the cardiovascular system, causing advanced health deterioration and early death.

Recent figures from England show that the disability-free life expectancy at birth for Bangladeshi men and women is 54.3 and 56.5 years, respectively; 7.5 and 7.6 fewer years than for White British men and women. Among the Pakistani group, men have 6 fewer years of disability-free life expectancy than White British men, and Pakistani women have 9 years less than White British women. Black Caribbean, Other Mixed, Indian, Other Asian and Other Black groups also have fewer years of disability-free life expectancy at birth than the White British group.

These inequalities in disability-free life expectancy result from the accumulation, throughout the life course, of disadvantage which results from racism and discrimination, and begins before birth.

What can we do to address this? Anti-racism movements and key legislations have resulted in reductions of certain forms of racism over time, and interventions have been developed to modify the association between experienced racial discrimination and poor health. But racism still exists and is visible across the full range of social interactions, from the most extreme – racially-motivated attacks – to more subtle forms of everyday racism, including racist representations in the media, which help maintain and reproduce ethnic inequalities.

With the purpose of contributing to a counter-narrative to racist messages common in society, the writer and actor Yusra Warsama, the filmmaker Mauro Camal, and I, have collaborated to develop three short videos disseminate the harm of racism on children. We used evidence from UK and international studies to guide our discussions on racism and child health, which have served as the inspiration behind the three pieces written and narrated by Yusra, and filmed by Mauro.

As these videos highlight, the harm of racism on children’s chances for a healthy and successful life is unfair and modifiable.

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Laia Bécares is a Joint ESRC Future Research Leader / Hallsworth Research Fellow at the University of Manchester's Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMIST). Her research examines the determinants of ethnic inequalities in health, with a focus on racial discrimination and life course effects.

Main Image: Royalty Free

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