Structural racism creates barriers in housing, employment and economic opportunity for Black people and other people of color. Now, a new study has found it can also have a harmful impact on children’s brain development.
The study, published Wednesday by the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that Black children are disproportionately exposed to adversity in early life, which may contribute to race-related differences in brain structures as compared to white children.
“These findings offer another chilling reminder of the public health impact of structural racism and how crucial it is to address these disparities in a meaningful way,” Nathaniel Harnett, M.D., an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who led the study, said in a press release.
According to data compiled from 1,786 Black and 7,350 white participants ages 9 to 10, racial disparities were reflected in differing adversity outcomes for each group. Factors including marital hardship, neighborhood disadvantages and trauma history led to greater disadvantages for Black children, particularly affecting the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that controls cognitive functions, including problem-solving, impulse control and the ability to regulate thoughts and emotions.
The racial disparities, the study’s authors write, are not random, but the result of structural inequalities, a consequence of factors like slavery and segregation, that “reinforce themselves through societal norms and practices,” the study said.
Income was the greatest factor reflected in the disparities of gray matter development, confirming data from previous studies on how low socioeconomic status and low income can negatively affect the brain.
“Our research provides substantial evidence of the effects structural racism can have on a child’s developing brain, and these small differences may be meaningful for their mental health and well-being through adulthood,” Harnett said. The researchers added that those illnesses later in life may include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide and violence.
“These findings may just be the tip of the iceberg,” said Harnett.