According to a UC San Francisco study published in Pediatrics.
Black girls were more likely than black boys to drink alcohol in response to increased school segregation.
The research provides some of the first evidence of the relationship between recent increases in racial segregation in school and the well-being of black children, said first author Guangyi Wang, PhD, UCSF research analyst Philip R Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies.
“Schooling can influence the course of life, and attending segregated schools is commonplace for black children, but research on its relationship to their health is sparse,” Wang said.
As the level of segregation increases, the problems also increase
The study looked at data on 1,248 black children, ages 5 to 17, who lived in school districts subject to court-ordered desegregation in 1991. That year, the Supreme Court issued rulings that facilitated the liberation of the districts from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional. Since then, highly segregated schools with 10% or fewer white students have more than tripled, from 5.7% to 18.6%.
While the health gap between black and white children persists, our findings show that inclusive education and support for black children who attend segregated schools can help reduce health inequities.
The researchers analyzed key measures of child well-being as well as district segregation levels up to 2014. To measure segregation, they used the Black-White Dissimilarity Index, which indicates the proportion of students blacks or whites who should change schools. achieve an even racial distribution. Values range from 0 to 1; higher values indicate that a school district is more segregated.
Every 0.2 increase in the dissimilarity index was associated with a 31% increase in behavior problems and a 62% increase in the likelihood of drinking, the researchers found.
The findings are consistent with a large body of literature linking racial, economic and social marginalization to inequalities in children’s behavior problems, the authors wrote. Children who are chronically exposed to stressful home and neighborhood environments may have more difficulty dealing with mental and emotional challenges, and the stress may lead to unhealthy coping behaviors such as alcohol use. This study showed the equally unhealthy effects of segregated school environments, to which black children are disproportionately exposed.
Structural racism at play
While segregated schools could conceivably improve some well-being outcomes by reducing exposure to interpersonal racism from white peers or teachers, this effect is not strong enough to counter structural racism, said lead author Rita. Hamad, MD, PhD, associate professor-in-residence in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF.
“Any potential interpersonal benefits are likely outweighed by the displays of structural racism in segregated schools,” Hamad said. “For example, black children may experience harsher disciplinary treatment in racially segregated schools as part of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.”
More frequent police encounters are associated with poorer mental health among teens, especially black girls, she noted. At the same time, heavily segregated schools tend to be less well funded. This means they have fewer resources to provide adequate support for children’s mental health and cognitive development.
“All of these racism-related factors create a domino effect, pushing children with school-segregated behavior problems into a harmful cycle of racial inequalities in lifelong well-being,” said Hamad, who is affiliated with the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute. for Health Policy Studies and is Director of the Social Policy Research for Health Equity Program.
School integration, support needed
“With the persistent gap between black and white children in health, our findings show that inclusive schooling and support for black children who attend segregated schools can help reduce health inequities,” said Wang.
Indeed, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional led to a substantial increase in racial integration in schools in the 1960s–1970s. This has improved the well-being of black people, including increasing education and work levels and self-rated health status, Hamad noted.
“Black people got some benefits after the first integration of schools,” Hamad said. “Now that the schools are separated again, the children are not enjoying the benefits of integration. We need structural interventions to address segregation and its consequences to ensure that more black children have a better chance of a healthier future.
Authors: In addition to Drs. Wang and Hamad, co-authors from UCSF are Gabriel L. Schwartz, PhD; Min Hee Kim, Ph.D.; Justin S. White, Ph.D.; and M. Maria Glymour, ScD, MS, who are affiliated with the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies. Scarlett Lin Gomez, MPH, PhD, and Pushkar Inamdar, PhD, are also co-authors and are part of UCSF’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Other authors and affiliations can be found in the article.
Funding: This study was supported by grant R01HL151638 from the National Institutes of Health, as well as the Research Assessment and Allocation Committee and the Huntington Fund of UCSF.