Abstract: Racial Discrimination and Psychiatric Disorders: The Moderating Effect of Ethnic Identity (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Racial Discrimination and Psychiatric Disorders: The Moderating Effect of Ethnic Identity

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 8:00 AM
Union Square 25 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Bongki Woo, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Wen Fan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Thanh Tran, PhD, Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill,, MA
David Takeuchi, PhD, Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Background and Purpose

Racial discrimination is a noxious social problem in the United States, which has been argued by some as the fundamental cause of health disparities by race and ethnicity. Given the still prevalent racial discrimination in contemporary U.S. society, it is important to identify conditions under which its dire health burden can be mitigated or exacerbated. The present study contributes to the literature by testing the moderating effect of ethnic identity on the link between racial discrimination and psychiatric disorders among diverse racial and ethnic groups. We focus on ethnic identity as it is an important part of social identity, which focuses on cultural group membership and perception of that membership. Ethnic identity may be especially primary for racial and ethnic minorities whose identities are likely rooted in collectivist non-Western cultures. Drawing on the understudied theoretical concept - identity-relevant stressors - which argues that stressors that threaten individuals’ most valued identity can be particularly psychologically damaging, we expect racial discrimination to be associated with stronger psychological burden for those who put more values on their racial and ethnic backgrounds. Furthermore, we test the difference by nativity status, given that the development and the strength of ethnic identity may differ by the place of birth.


The data are from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III. The sample consists of American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian, Black, Latinx, and White adults. The dependent variables are DSM-V psychiatric diagnoses. The key independent variables are racial discrimination and ethnic identity. Given the skewed distribution and its potential non-linear relationship with psychiatric disorders, ethnic identity is categorized into four quartiles. Binary logistic regression analyses are conducted to examine whether the association between racial discrimination and psychiatric disorders are moderated by ethnic identity.


Consistent with previous literature, racial discrimination is associated with higher odds of psychiatric disorder for all five racial and ethnic groups, regardless of nativity status. For the U.S.-born, the results of interaction terms between racial discrimination and ethnic identity indicate that moderate and high levels of ethnic identity mitigate the positive association between racial discrimination and psychiatric disorder, while very high ethnic identity exacerbates the link. For the foreign-born, moderate ethnic identity buffers the positive association between discrimination and psychiatric disorders, while high and very high ethnic identity intensifies it.

Conclusions and Implications

The present study extends the current knowledge base by revealing that the moderating role of ethnic identity is not unidirectional but vary by its strength. Instead of treating ethnic identity as either buffer or an exacerbator, our findings indicate that it is important to take into consideration its different levels. Our results are also helpful for identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to the adverse psychological effect of racial discrimination. That the protective role of ethnic identity is limited for those with lower ethnic identity calls for more attention to identifying other potential protective factors of racial discrimination, especially for those with high ethnic identity.