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A STUDY IN SHAME

11:00 PM, Nov 10, 1996 • By ERIC FELTEN
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October 24 was one of those days when everyone in the news business seemed to have been reading the very same obscure academic journal. "Discrimination May Affect Risk of High Blood Pressure in Blacks," was the New York Times headline; "Study: Discrimination May Cause Hypertension in Blacks," declared the Washington Post. Nor were print reporters the only ones scouring the American Journal of Public Health, where the blood-pressure study was published; even the 11 o'clock local news nationwide was up to speed that night on the latest issue of the American Public Health Association's journal.


The reason for the avalanche of coverage is simple: A press release hyping the article was faxed around by the association's publicrelations department, with an embargo that forbade any news about the article until the evening before October 24. For its efforts, the association was rewarded with news coverage that was as lavish as it was credulous. In their rush to report a juicy story about the ravages of racism, the journalists never noticed they were being had. In truth, the so-called study is such a jumbled mess of contradictory data that it couldn't possibly be evidence of anything, let alone the contentious thesis that racism literally causes illness in black people.


The article, "Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure," was written by Nancy Krieger of the Harvard School of Public Health, in an attempt to show that the well-documented prevalence of hypertension among blacks is the result of discrimination. It isn't the first such study that Krieger has done. She has tried for years to show that the Left's favorite old bogeys aren't just societal ills, but scientifically demonstrable pathogens. (Other Krieger articles: "The influence of social class, race, and gender on the etiology of hypertension among women in the United States" and "Racism, sexism, and social class: implications for studies of health, disease, and well-being.") Were she to succeed, racism, sexism, and "homophobia" would no longer be matters for law and ethics. Instead, their eradication would become a job for public-health authorities with their clipboards and white frocks. No wonder the American Public Health Association is so eager to publicize Krieger's findings.


Here's how Krieger's study worked. Blood pressure readings were taken for 831 black men and 1,143 black women between the ages of 25 and 37. The participants were asked a barrage of questions about their income, occupation, education, marital status, smoking status, and weight. To eliminate the effect of those factors known to raise blood pressure -- like obesity and smoking -- the results were weighted. The participants were either deemed " professional class" or "working class" based on income and occupation. Then the participants were asked whether they experienced racism in any of seven situations -- "at school," "getting a job," "at work," "getting housing," " getting medical care," "on the street or in a public setting," and "from the police or in the courts." The responses allowed Krieger to put the participants in a variety of subgroups. There were, for example, working- class black men who reported no discrimination; those who reported some discrimination; and those who reported discrimination in three or more areas of life. The same breakdowns were made for working-class black women, professional-class black men, and professional-class black women.


Krieger's thesis is that the stress of experiencing racism is a cause (perhaps the cause) of high blood pressure among black Americans. One would think that to prove this, you would need to find that racism tracks with blood pressure -- that is, those who reported experiencing the most racism on average would have the highest blood pressure, and vice versa. But this is not what Krieger's findings showed. For starters, professional-class blacks had significantly lower blood pressure than working-class blacks. This, even though Krieger's data (and a wealth of other surveys) show that professional-class blacks claim to encounter more racism than do their blue- collar counterparts.


Krieger isn't about to admit that the data disprove her hypothesis, however. Instead, she is ready with an "interpretation" of the results. Professional- class blacks may report more racism than working-class blacks, but according to Krieger it doesn't drive their blood pressure up as much because of "their greater social and economic resources and, thus, perhaps greater willingness to name and challenge discriminatory treatment."