Friday, October 17, 2008


by: Avery

So I’m lookin around and I see reports of yet another study that attempts to correlate the incidence of low birth weight and chronic diseases like hypertension and cardiovascular disease to social factors affecting Black folks. Ho-hum. Slavery still has effects on a given individual’s health a hundred and some odd years later? I’m generally skeptical of such claims, but I tried to look into it a little deeper, because the first article where I saw the blurb didn’t go into nearly enough detail for me.
“A pregnant African-American mother’s experience of well documented stressors, including social forces such as discrimination and racism, could have lingering effects on diseases like hypertension, diabetes and heart attacks in her children,” co-authors Christopher Kuzawa and Elizabeth Sweet said in a statement. They argue that social forces, rather than genes, may underlie the problem of racial inequity in heart attacks and strokes.
A second study states that the average birth weight among African-American babies is approximately 10 percent less than white infants. Study co-author Grazyna Jasienska said this may also be the result of conditions experienced by their ancestors during slavery.
Second article gave me a little more detail, and I focused on this little nugget buried way down in the cut.
urrent socio-economic conditions which are, on average, worse for African-Americans, can explain only part of the observed birth weight variation, according to Jasienska. Nor is there reason to think that lower birth weight of African-Americans is due to original African genetic heritage. Prior studies have shown that contemporary black women who were born in African countries ancestral to slave populations, but who live in the U.S., give birth to children with significantly higher weight than black women in the U.S. who have slave ancestry.
“Slaves experienced poor nutrition during all stages of life, suffered from a heavy burden of infectious diseases and, in addition, experienced high energetic costs of hard physical labor,” says Jasienska. “Even a short-term nutritional deprivation of pregnant women, when very severe, has been shown to have an intergenerational effect,” says Jasienska. Dutch women exposed to famine as fetuses in mid- and late gestation have also been shown to have reduced birth weights, and the effect was detectable years later because birth weight of their children was also reduced.
I ain’t gon’ even lie: I’m still kinda skeptical, particularly since one of the principal researchers is an anthropologist. The challenge for me is trying to wrap my head around the “what if.” Anybody would have a hard time convincing me that my great- and great-great-ancestors’ lives have a tangible impact on my health, let alone on factors that are so closely correlated to lifestyle choices that I make today. It just doesn’t add up to me. But the fact that it doesn’t add up to me doesn’t mean that it’s not true, it just doesn’t really make sense to me. But it could be true.

This is exactly where my favorite social science theory comes into play. Most of these studies rely on some aggregate comparison of Black folks and white folks. I’m thoroughly convinced that in order to see what’s goin on with Us, you can’t compare Us to an outside group, because there are too many uncontrolled variables. If you wanna see what’s the deal with Us, you’d hafta compare Us TO Us and see what the differences are between the ones who showed the trait and who don’t show the trait. In this case, what are the differences between Black women of identical (or at least similar) social address markers who do and do not have low-birth weight babies? THAT’S where the research that has actionable implications is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First, comparing African-Americans to native Africans doesn't make for good science because the former are mostly mixed-race. Therefore comparing them to a more "racially homogeneous" group is bad science if one is trying to draw any real conclusions.

Secondly, to deny that there is a relationship between stress and health is foolish.

Why wouldn't you believe that the health of the mother would be affected by stress?

I'm sorry, but politics and diagnosing medical conditions seems inherently flawed. It reminds me of the eugenicists in the early 20th Century who were set to wipe out genetic inferiority in Americans.

They had no real understanding of human genetics but carried out monstrous policies of forced sterilization to further their beliefs.

In contrast, skeptics refused to believe the benefit of acupuncture because it did follow their beliefs or ideas about science. After many years, Western science has finally recognized that acupuncture provides real assistance.