How Racism Affects Mental and Physical Health


The term “race” refers to a social category that groups humans with similar physical or social qualities into categories that are generally viewed as distinct in a given society. In a society that defines itself by race, this categorization serves as the basis for systems of privilege, disenfranchisement and oppression. Racism – the attitudes and practices that define such systems – negatively impacts the mental and physical health of millions of people throughout the country. It keeps individuals from achieving their fullest potential and prevents society as a whole from thriving.

While we’ve come a long way in the past three decades, the United States is still a country divided by race. This is largely due to the changing demographics of our population and the continuing effects of our history with racial discrimination. In the future, it is expected that whites will make up a smaller percentage of our nation’s total population while the number of blacks and Latinos will continue to grow. The number of Asians is also expected to double.

Whether filling out a Census form, applying for a job or answering a question on a patient questionnaire, most Americans are asked to indicate their racial and ethnic background. Governments, workplaces and schools often use this information to determine things like which programs need funding, what disparities exist between different groups and when civil rights violations may occur. However, many individuals feel that checking a box to indicate their racial or ethnic identity is not something they are comfortable doing because it forces them to think about themselves in terms that don’t always align with their own sense of self.

Research shows that the concept of race is a social construct with no scientific or biological validity. Yet, despite this knowledge, it continues to be used as a tool of discrimination and oppression. The system of racism – an interconnected network of policies, structures and practices that systematically advantage some individuals over others at every level of society – is the result of centuries of colonization, the transatlantic slave trade and migration patterns, among other factors.

It is because of this that people of color are more likely to be disadvantaged across all aspects of society, even when they have achieved a high socioeconomic status. And it is why policies that focus on addressing poverty and promoting upward mobility are so important in improving the lives of all Americans. It is for these reasons that the Center for American Progress supports reforming our nation’s criminal justice system by focusing on socioeconomic status as a key factor in measuring crime and reducing disparities in incarceration rates, sentencing, prison populations and other indicators. We are committed to working with our partners in Congress and across the country to advance such legislation. In the meantime, we encourage you to read our policy brief on this issue to learn more about how the system of racial profiling and unfair sentencing is harming communities across America.