Study Shows Racism Linked to Black Women’s High Premature Birth Rates
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A recent study took a deep dive at examining the disparity between white and Black preterm birth rates. 

The most plausible culprit: racism.

Black women are 1.6 times more likely to give birth at least three weeks early, which could lead to alarming consequences for the premature infant. In 2019, the preterm birth rate among Black women was 50 percent higher than white women. 

A Frontiers report co-authored by San Francisco’s Dr. Paula Braveman revealed that socioeconomic factors alone could not be responsible for such disparities. The team examined 33 potential causes, which included prenatal care, environmental toxins, chronic stress, poverty and obesity. 

The study found that racism was the lone factor that could explain the disparities, both directly and indirectly. 

“Segregation places Black women in stressful surroundings and exposes them to environmental hazards,” the review read. “Race-based discriminatory treatment is a pervasive stressor for Black women of all socioeconomic levels, considering both incidents and the constant vigilance needed to prepare oneself for potential incidents.”

Braveman is the director of the Center on Social Disparities in Health at the University of California-San Francisco. She has previously studied the association between wealth and children’s health in neighborhoods. 

Her keen interest in maternal and infant health led her to the Frontiers project. 

“There were many ways that experiencing racial discrimination would affect a woman’s pregnancy, but one major way would be through pathways and biological mechanisms involved in stress, and stress physiology. In neuroscience, what’s been clear is that a chronic stressor seems to be more damaging to health than an acute stressor.” Braveman said in a Kaiser Health News interview. “So it doesn’t make much sense to be looking only during pregnancy. But that’s where most of that research has been done: stress during pregnancy and racial discrimination, and its role in birth outcomes. Very few studies have looked at experiences of racial discrimination across the life course.”

She said policy alone may not be enough to improve the preterm birth rate among Black women, who have in her previous papers discussed with her the constant vigilance that racism produces. Braveman said the best opportunity to better Black maternal and infant health is an investment to “achieve a more equitable and less racist society.”