Racism rise would be bad for the kids

A range of anti-racism initiatives and policies have been put into place in recent years by successive Governments in the UK. But could those efforts be undermined as we move into a period where it seems “anti-immigrant” sentiment and rhetoric is on the increase?

With one in three people in Britain describing themselves as being very or a little racially prejudiced, according to a recent British Social Attitudes Survey, what might be the consequences of any rise in racist attacks whether physical or verbal on people from an ethnic minority background, in particular children? Professor Yvonne Kelly blogs on recent research showing that racism needs to be firmly in the mix of things to tackle when policymakers are trying to ensure the health and happiness of the UK’s children.

From negative and inaccurate stereotypes and behaviours to open threats, insults and physical violence, there is a growing body of evidence of the links between racist behaviours like these and poor mental and physical health in children and young people.

Two pieces of research from the ESRC-funded International Centre for Lifecourse Studies have been looking at the impacts of racism on the social, emotional and physical development of children and find links between the racism they and their parents experience and behavioural problems, poor school performance and obesity.

In a research paper for Social Science and Medicine, the research team at ICLS looked at more than 120 studies (predominantly in the US) which explored the relationship between reported racism and health and wellbeing for children and young people.

Health outcomes 

Of the 461 health-related outcomes reported in these studies, things like depression and anxiety were most commonly reported, with statistically significant associations with racial discrimination found in 76% of outcomes examined.

Racial discrimination also impacted heavily on self esteem and resilience and was closely associated with behaviour problems, poor well-being, and issues around pregnancy and birth such as going into labour early and low birthweight.

The studies showed a strong link also between racial discrimination and delinquent behaviour and risky behaviours including drinking, smoking and drug taking.

Although links with physical health were less prominent,researchers put this down to the fact that there is likely to be a delayed onset of issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses, which often become evident long after damaging exposure to racism occurs.

Interestingly, preschoolers’ mental health appeared to be less badly affected than that of  older children. The researchers say this could be down to the ability of carers to effectively buffer children of this age from the detrimental effects of racial discrimination.

Mothers and racism

A second piece of research, the first of its kind, looked at how mothers’ experiences of racism affected the physical and mental health of more than 2000 5 year-olds in the Millennium Cohort Study.

When the children in the study turned 5, all mothers were asked about racist attacks in their neighbourhood including questions like:

 “How common are insults or attacks to do with someone’s race or colour?”

Mothers from ethnic minority groups were asked four questions about their own experiences of racism and discrimination over the previous 12 months:

“How often has someone said something insulting to you because of your race or ethnicity?”

“How often have you been treated unfairly just because of your race or ethnicity?”

“How often has a shopkeeper or salesperson treated you in a disrespectful way just because of your race or ethnicity?”

“How often have members of your family been treated unfairly just because of their race or ethnicity?”

The children’s height and weight were measured and mothers were asked to fill in a special questionnaire designed to pick up on difficulties such as hyperactivity and attention problems. Their verbal and problem-solving skills were also assessed in a range of tests.

Ethnic minority groups looked at in the research were:

  • Indian (416)
  • Pakistani (716)
  • Bangladeshi (294)
  • Black Caribbean (348)
  • Black African (362)

About 12% of mothers reported that racist insults or attacks were fairly/very common in their residential area. 23% of mothers reported that they had experienced verbal insults in the previous 12 months, 20% reported having experienced unfair treatment due to race or ethnicity, 17% reported experiencing disrespectful treatment from shop staff and 23% reported that a family member had been treated unfairly due to their race or ethnicity.

Bangladeshi mothers were most likely to perceive problems to do with racism in their residential areas, while Black Caribbean and African mothers were most likely to report unfair treatment, disrespectful treatment in shops and unfair treatment of family members.

Children of mothers who had experienced racism at first hand were around one and a half times more likely to be obese than children of mothers who had not.

Children living in areas were the mothers described racism as common were more likely to have social and emotional difficulties and performed worse in certain tests.

Conclusion and key points 

There is now a compelling body of evidence linking racism with poorer health and development in children, something which has long-term implications for their well-being.

Given the public health  and policy drives to tackle obesity, there’s a clear argument for not simply focusing on diet, physical activity and parenting, and for putting racism firmly in the mix.

Research links and information

A systematic review of studies examining the relationship between reported racism and health and wellbeing for children and young people is by Naomi Priest, Yin Paradies, Brigid Trenerry, Mandy Truong, Saffron Karlsen and Yvonne Kelly. It is published in Social Determinants of Child Health, a Special Issue of Social Science & Medicine.

Associations between maternal experiences of racism and early child health and development: findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study is a research report by Yvonne Kelly, Laia Becares and James Nazroo. It is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This research was produced as part of an ESRC-funded project, Disparities in Children’s Health and Behavior: The Importance of Race/Ethnicity in the UK and US.

Photo credit: Lennart Tange