Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15960 The Racialized Context of Health Disparities: Considerations for Social Work Research

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:00 AM
Constitution D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Teri Browne, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Ronald Pitner, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Darcy Freedman, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
BACKGROUND & PURPOSE: A growing body of scientific literature and government reports illuminate that racial and ethnic disparities exist in the United States (Services, 2000; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003). Racial and ethnic discrimination (i.e., racism) is often identified as a contributing factor to these disparities. Racism occurs at individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels (Jones, 2002). This research explores how “racialized” contexts, an element of structural racism, affect people's ability to acknowledge health disparities as being real and worthy of research and intervention. We examine community responses to media about two health disparities research projects, and consider how racialized contexts influence the “naming” of disparities as a social problems worthy of research and intervention.

METHODS: In 2010, a local news program and newspaper in a southeastern community published stories about two different research studies focused on African American health disparities. Forty-three different individuals responded online to both stories, resulting in 100 responses. Content analysis of the responses was conducted inductively by three independent coders who identified six common themes.

RESULTS: There was a perception that health differences by race were “manufactured truth.” The naming of health disparities between racial groups was deemed to be a political act put forth by “leftist liberal” researchers and media outlets. When disparities were acknowledged, they were attributed to individual-level factors and negative perceptions of African Americans. Overall, respondents did not see a history of racism and discriminatory practices as important contributors to health disparities. CONCLUSIONS & IMPLICATIONS: The findings suggest that many respondents did not believe that health disparities were valid or real phenomena. Social work researchers need to take into account the racialized contexts in which research is conducted. Endemic racism and discrimination not only affect the significance of “naming” disparities as a problem, but also social work research and intervention strategies.

Jones, C. P. (2002). Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener's tale. In T. A. LaVeist (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, and health (pp. 311-318). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Services, U. S. D. o. H. a. H. (2000). Healthy people 2010: understanding and improving health (2 ed.). Washington: Government Printing Office. Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60 (1), 16-26. Smedley, B. D., Stith, A. Y., & Nelson, A. R. (Eds.). (2003). Unequal treatment: confronting racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Washington: National Academies Press.

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