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."
Krieger's interpretation goes into overdrive when she grapples with the results involving working-class black men. Yes, the average blood pressure of those who report multiple instances of racism was higher than that of those who said they ran into discrimination in just a couple of areas of life. But the highest average blood pressure was among those working-class black men who reported suffering no discrimination at all. This ought to be devastating to the Krieger hypothesis, but she has an excuse at the ready: " Individuals who have experienced but feel unable to challenge discrimination may find it painful to admit that they have experienced discrimination, either to themselves or another person."
In other words, those who say they have experienced discrimination are telling the truth; those who say they haven't experienced discrimination are suffering a particularly debilitating form of denial known as "internalized oppression."
To support this rather extraordinary (and extraordinarily convenient) interpretation of the data, Krieger did not attempt to construct an experiment to test whether the study participants were in denial. She merely cited one of her previous articles, as well as three non-scientific texts (Living with Racism, Understanding Everyday Racism, and Killing Rage: Ending Racism). For further evidence that suppressed anger is the key to understanding her contradictory data, Krieger also cites an article from the journal Health Psychology titled "Relationship of Racial Stressors to Blood Pressure Responses and Anger Expression in Black College Students." Sounds impressive. But it turns out the article was a master's thesis project with a total study sample of 12 black male students and 15 black female students at St. Louis University.
With her talent for creative interpretation, Krieger also manages to dispose of a variety of other results that confound her theory. For example, professional-class black men who said they had suffered no discrimination had lower blood pressure than those professional-class black men who said they had been victims of it. How does this fit with Krieger's claim that those who admit no discrimination are suffering from denial? It fits perfectly well once Krieger has made yet another convenient assumption: Because of their greater resources, professional-class black men do not lie to themselves about racism, but instead confront it when it happens. They can thus be trusted to report their experiences accurately, whereas working-class black men cannot.
Or how about this anomaly? Working-class black women who accept discrimination and keep it to themselves have higher blood pressure than those who talk about it, but working-class black men who talk about it have higher blood pressure than those who are silent. Doesn't that throw a wrench into the crucial interpretive machinery of "internalization"? Not for Krieger. "These patterns may reflect gender differences in how working-class black women and men respond to and talk about discrimination," she writes.
It is impossible to read "Racial Discrimination and Blood Pressure" without coming to the nagging conclusion that there is not a single result Krieger couldn't have massaged into some sort of contorted proof of her thesis. Imagine that working-class black men reporting no discrimination had reported the lowest blood pressure, and that those claiming the most encounters with racism had reported the highest. Can there be any doubt that Krieger would have discovered a causal link between racism and hypertension? And yet when the data show the reverse, Krieger claims that that too is proof of her theory.
This is not science; it is propaganda. The experimental method -- the touchstone of science -- requires that a hypothesis be put to a test in which it could be disproved. An experiment in which any and every result proves the hypothesis is by definition not a scientific experiment. Krieger did not allow her findings to refute her politically charged medical claim. Compounding the error, the American Public Health Association not only failed to call her on it, but did everything it could to publicize and hype her sciolistic claims.
Even if the data had all lined up in a nice orderly fashion, one couldn't possibly have concluded that racial discrimination is the "stressor" causing hypertension among black Americans. The problem with any research into psychosomatic illness is the near impossibility of nailing down causal relationships between the psyche and the body. For example, Black Americans' Views of Racial Inequality: The Dream Deferred -- a text cited by Krieger as authoritative -- notes that there is a relationship between the financial straits blacks find themselves in and their perception of racism. " There is a wide perceptual gap between blacks who have difficulty meeting their monthly household expenses and those who do not," according to that study, published in 1986. "Those who say it is 'very difficult' to pay their bills perceive markedly greater discrimination against themselves and against blacks in general than do those who find it "not difficult at all.'"
Not being able to pay one's bills is just the sort of stressful situation that might drive up blood pressure. Thus, even if there were a link between reports of discrimination and hypertension, the link could be that the stresses of living near poverty are responsible both for driving up blood pressure and for causing people to perceive themselves as the victims of racism. This would be a radically different conclusion from the one Krieger draws, but just as plausible.
Similarly, there is ample research documenting that hostility and lack of trust can contribute to heart disease. What if heightened blood pressure were the product of the same hostility that encourages someone to perceive ubiquitous racism?
The Krieger study and the breathless response to it suggest that the academy seems to have lost any ability to challenge bogus research having a political cast -- as long as that political cast is favorable to enlightened liberal views. We can always expect reporters from the New York Times and the nightly news to be suckers for "provocative" scientific findings. But once upon a time we might have expected more diligence from universities and scholarly publications. Does Krieger's research meet the standards of Harvard's School of Public Health? The answer is obviously yes. Was the American Journal of Public Health so eager for publicity that its editors missed the glaring faults of Krieger's research? Or did they just hype her " findings" fully aware that the study was science in its trappings only? Either way, their behavior is disgraceful.
Eric Felten's "Cop Bloc" appeared in the October 28 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is a writer and jazz musician living in Washington, D.C.