Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race

Unpacking Racism and its Health Consequences


Camara Jules P. Harrella1 c1, Tanisha I. Burforda2, Brandi N. Cagea3, Travette McNair Nelsona4, Sheronda Shearona5, Adrian Thompsona6 and Steven Greena7

a1 Department of Psychology, Howard University

a2 Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh

a3 Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin

a4 Department of Psychology, Howard University

a5 Department of Psychology, Howard University

a6 Department of Psychology, Howard University

a7 Department of Psychology, Howard University


This commentary discusses advances in the conceptual understanding of racism and selected research findings in the social neurosciences. The traditional stress and coping model holds that racism constitutes a source of aversive experiences that, when perceived by the individual, eventually lead to poor health outcomes. Current evidence points to additional psychophysiological pathways linking facets of racist environments with physiological reactions that contribute to disease. The alternative pathways emphasize prenatal experiences, subcortical emotional neural circuits, conscious and preconscious emotion regulation, perseverative cognitions, and negative affective states stemming from racist cognitive schemata. Recognition of these pathways challenges change agents to use an array of cognitive and self-controlling interventions in mitigating racism's impact. Additionally, it charges policy makers to develop strategies that eliminate deep-seated structural aspects of racism in society.

(Online publication April 15 2011)


  • Racism;
  • Health Disparities;
  • Behavioral Interventions;
  • Psychosocial Stress


c1 Camara Jules P. Harrell, Department of Psychology, Howard University, Washington, DC 20059. E-mail: jharrell@howard.edu

Camara Jules P. Harrell is Professor of Psychology at Howard University. He is author of the book Manichean Psychology: Racism and the Minds of People of African Descent. With his graduate students he has published articles related to physiological process and psychological variables in the Journal of Black Psychology, the American Journal of Public Health, Psychological Bulletin, Biological Psychology, Ethnicity and Disease, the Journal of Psychophysiology, and the International Journal of Psychophysiology.

Tanisha Burford is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine Research Training program at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her PhD in Personality Psychology in 2009 from Howard University. Her primary research examines the complex ways in which negative environmental factors and psychosocial stressors contribute to inordinate rates of cardiovascular disease among racial/ethnic minorities. She completed a one year postdoctoral fellowship in the Behavioral Medicine training program at Duke University from 2009–2010.

Brandi Cage is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research focuses on positive qualities of emotions. Currently she is conducting research on the neural, physiological, and cognitive components of forgiveness behaviors. She is planning research into cultural dynamics of forgiveness that will involve an examination of psychophysiological processes.

Travette McNair Nelson is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Howard University. Her research interests include the effects of cultural and other environmental factors on cognitive development. Currently, she is examining the effects of racism as a stressor on cortisol levels in African Americans. She obtained a BS in Psychology from Howard University.

Sheronda Shearon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Howard University. She is studying the relationship between personality, cultural orientation, and body image in African American women.

Adrian Thompson is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at Howard University. He has done graduate work in Exercise Physiology and his current research focuses on the relationship between cardiac activity and anxiety. His career goals include developing systems for delivering mental health services to underserved populations.

Steven Green is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at Howard University. His research interests include understanding the role that culture, the Black family structure, racism, and Black male development play on both psychological and physical health. His current dissertation is titled, I am not Stressed! How about you?: A Look at the Role of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on the Autonomic Nervous System. Green holds a BA in Psychology from Concordia University and a MSc degree in Transcultural Psychiatry from McGill University in Montreal.