Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race

Moving Forward in Studying Racial Disparities in Health


Toward a Constructive Criticism1

Cynthia G. Colena1 c1

a1 Department of Sociology, Ohio State University


In the United States, African Americans face stark inequalities in health. The life course perspective offers a unique viewpoint through which racial disparities in morbidity and mortality may be understood as the result of repeated exposures to risk factors during both childhood and adulthood. However, the utility of this approach is limited by its failure to investigate the degree to which racial/ethnic minorities are able to translate gains in socioeconomic status into favorable health outcomes, both for themselves and for their children. In order to adequately reflect the realities of marginalized groups, life course models must explore the interactive nature of linkages across lifecourse stages, pay particular attention to the unique processes that create and maintain health disparities over time, and consider the specific contexts in which these processes occur. To this end, I examine the ways in which exclusionary forces and discriminatory conditions are likely to prevent African American women and their children from reaping the health benefits typically associated with upward socioeconomic mobility.

(Online publication April 15 2011)


  • Race;
  • Health;
  • Socioeconomic Mobility;
  • Discrimination;
  • Life Course


c1 Cynthia G. Colen, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University, 238 Townshend Hall, 1885 Neil Avenue Mall, Columbus, OH 43210. E-mail: colen.3@sociology.osu.edu

Cynthia G. Colen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She holds a PhD in Public Health with a concentration in Social Demography from the University of Michigan. From 2005–2007, she was a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the production and maintenance of racial disparities in health both within and across generations, especially among middle-class African Americans. She is currently exploring the impacts of gentrification on the health of long-term neighborhood residents.


1 The author would like to thank Arline Geronimus, John Bound, Sherman James, Pam Smock, David Williams, John Casterline, and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts. Dr. Colen also gratefully acknowledges support from the National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD) through a training grant (T32HD007339) to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan as well as the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program at Columbia University.