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Does a Death in the Family Perpetuate Racial Inequality?

African Americans are more likely to lose a loved one, which could perpetuate disparities in health.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

African Americans die at a much higher rate than whites, a fact that leaves an unfortunate but largely overlooked effect on the community as a whole: According to new research, African Americans are also much more likely to suffer a death in the family, the effects of which could reverberate across generations.

“If blacks die at higher rates and earlier in the life course than whites, then blacks lose more loved ones from childhood through adulthood,” University of Texas–Austin professor of sociology Debra Umberson and her colleagues write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Through the damaging effects of grief and other mechanisms, such losses are likely to undermine multiple life course outcomes.”

To test those ideas, Umberson and her team turned to two large, long-term studies: the Health and Retirement Study, which tracked 34,757 Americans born between 1900 and 1965, and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1977 (NLSY-97), which followed kids and adolescents born between 1980 and 1984.

NLSY-97 data indicated that, by the time African Americans were 20 years old, 8.5 percent had lost their mothers and 17.1 percent had lost their fathers. Of those who had siblings, 2.8 percent had lost at least one, and of those who had children, 0.7 percent had lost one. The numbers for whites are far lower: Three-point-six percent lost moms, 8.8 percent lost dads, 1.8 percent lost siblings, and 0.3 percent lost children. Similar patterns held up both for other ages and in the HRS data.

African Americans also experienced more deaths than whites on average. In the HRS data, for example, “blacks are about 90% more likely than whites to have experienced four or more deaths by age 60,” the researchers write. “In stark contrast, whites are 30% more likely than blacks to have never experienced a family loss by age 60.”

Worse, such disparities could be self-perpetuating. Beyond any immediate strain on an individual, the death of a family member can affect the formation and quality of relationships throughout a person’s life. These effects are broad, including both mental and physical health in children and adults, Umberson and her colleagues write.

“Scholars and policymakers need to attend to the ways in which such losses have reverberating effects throughout family networks,” the team writes. “Indeed, earlier and more frequent exposure to death is a distinctive stressor that adds to racial disparities in overall stress exposure and almost certainly results in lifelong cumulative disadvantage for children, adults, and families.”