New Study Suggests Stress of Racial Discrimination Equal To “Pressure Soldiers Face”

New research out of Penn State University suggests that African Americans who suffer from racial discrimination will experience an increased likelihood of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) at some point in their lives. William A. Smith, a Professor at University of Utah, coined the term “racial battle fatigue” to describe the similarities between the chronic debilitating effects of race discrimination and the debilitating effects of war time stresses.

“Racial battle fatigue” manifests both physically and psychologically. Psychologically, victims may suffer agitated thoughts and trouble concentrating. Physically, victims may experience ulcers, fatigue, and headaches. This new research – published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders – examined nearly 6,000 American adults, including over 3,500 African Americans.

Jose Soto, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Penn State, reports: “one interesting finding from the study is that non-racial discrimination seems to be associated with the development of GAD [generalized anxiety disorder] for all three groups in the sample… about 49% of non-Hispanic whites said they suffered other forms of discrimination… this is just one instance of how powerful social stressors can impact healthy functioning.”

Soto suggests that the experience of racism causes the anxiety. Perhaps. This conclusion seems to match our intuitive expectations. For instance, consider a situation in which a co-worker harasses you on a daily basis; this abuse might lead to a long-term self esteem deficit, which in turn could cause generalized anxiety.

However, alternative explanations also might explain the data. For instance, perhaps the correlation between racial abuse and GAD could be explained in reverse. Consider a situation in which an anxiety-prone individual enters the work force. Perhaps this person had a genetic tendency to be anxious. A non-anxious person might be able to “laugh off” a tasteless joke or a rude comment. But a more sensitive person — more prone to anxiety — might be more likely to interpret bad behavior as harassment/discrimination.

In science, it’s important to be able to tease apart cause from effect. If the end goal is to end racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation – as it should be – then experts should consider multiple reads of the data before implementing policy prescriptions.

In any event, irrespective of how one might try to interpret this research, the reality is that racial and gender discrimination occurs all the time in American workplaces. If someone you care about has been denied a promotion, fired, or otherwise mistreated at work, the team at Joseph & Kirschenbaum can work with you to develop solutions. Explore clear and active resources at www.jhllp.com, or connect for free consultation at (212) 688-5640.