WASHINGTON, D.C.— New research on neighborhood racial segregation and sentiments toward people of color is highlighting how racism-related stress may be contributing to inequities in premature birth. Although previous research has shown that Black women in the United States are more than 50% more likely to deliver a premature baby than white women, the new data capture some of the dynamics earlier studies could not unravel.

The studies, which were analyzed by PRB, are part of a deeper exploration of factors underlying premature births supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

“Socioeconomic factors like the mother’s health, education and income have been shown to account for only a portion of the Black-white gap in premature births. Innovative approaches that examine the potential role of racism-related stress can help advance our understanding of this important public health issue,” said Linda Jacobsen, PRB’s vice president for U.S. Programs.

One study found that the racial composition of a mother’s neighborhood could shape her risk of premature birth. Researchers cross-referenced Texas birth certificate data with data on neighborhood racial and ethnic composition over a 20-year period. Although Black women had higher odds of having a premature birth than white women, the differences were widest among Black and white women living in neighborhoods with persistently high concentrations of white residents.

Researchers noted that Black women may be exposed to stressful race-related experiences in predominantly white neighborhoods, experience social isolation and must overcome racial barriers to access community resources, including adequate health care. Efforts to promote a more accepting and inclusive social environment and introduce racially inclusive policies and services that support Black women could help reduce premature and low-weight birth rates.

A separate study found that negative sentiments toward people of color expressed on Twitter may reflect hostile local environments that could be triggering premature births in the United States. The research shows a correlation between the level of negative sentiment toward Black people by Twitter users and the rates of premature and low-birthweight births across states.

The Twitter sentiment study examined more than 1.2 million tweets containing at least one word pertaining to a racial or ethnic minority and rates of premature and low-birthweight births by state. Negative comments included complaints, insults or racial slurs, while positive sentiments expressed cultural pride or denied racial stereotypes. The findings showed that all mothers living in states with the highest levels of negative sentiment toward Black people were 16% more likely to have a premature birth compared to mothers living in the states with the lowest level. The same patterns of premature birth were observed among minority subgroups, suggesting that social environments with greater levels of hostility toward minority groups may have adverse effects for everyone.

The study on racial composition of neighborhoods was conducted by Catherine Cubbin and Shetal Vohra-Gupta of the University of Texas at Austin, Yeonwoo Kim of University of Texas-Arlington, and Claire Margerison of Michigan State University.

The study of Twitter sentiment was conducted by an eight-member team including Thu X. Nguyen of the University of California, San Francisco and Quynh C. Nguyen of the University of Maryland.

 

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