Vivian Malone Registering at the University of Alabama

Racism and Segregation as a Factor in Obesity Risk

What roles do racism and segregation play in the disparate obesity risk for children from some racial and ethnic groups face? Is it race or place that is driving these disparities? How concerned should we be about the trends toward increasing school segregation evident in many regions of the U.S.?

These are questions for which recent research is bringing new insights. A new study this month lends some support to the idea that place not race is at least part of what is driving disparities in obesity. Nuha Mahmood and colleagues conclude in the May issue of Obesity that:

“School-level racial segregation is a salient contributor to racial/ethnic childhood obesity disparities. Reducing obesity disparities may be particularly effective if place-level interventions target socioeconomically disadvantaged integrated schools and segregated schools attended primarily by children of color.”

Childhood Obesity in California Schools

Mahmood used data from the 2018-2019 school year for California students in fifth, seventh, and ninth grades. They used data on measured height and weight from the California FitnessGram. These data, of course, are cross-sectional data. But in these data, they found that school segregation accounted for a substantial portion of the obesity disparities between White children and children of color – Black, Hispanic, and Filipino children.

In short, racial and ethnic disparities were smaller or non existent in integrated schools. For segregated schools the researchers found a consistent pattern of more obesity for the children of color.

Of course, this study merely points to a robust pattern. It can’t explain all the causal factors that line up to make these segregated schools predict obesity disparities so consistently.

The Old Normal Is Not OK

Black Students in Mostly Nonwhite Public SchoolsOne thing is clear, though. The status quo of persistent segregation in schools is not OK. The systemic racism that fuels segregation and disparities in health and obesity risk will not fade without concerted efforts. In fact, segregation has been steadily rising for decades now, most notably in the Northeast.

Persistent school segregation is part of a pattern of systemic racism. It fuels health inequity. Al Sharpton, Calvin Butts III, Reed Tuckson, Fatima Cody Stanford, and Debra Fraser-Howze explained in USA Today recently why this is unacceptable:

“We’re not going back to normal. We died in normal. America needs to face health inequity.”

They are right. Because we cannot afford to fade into complacency about disparities that deny good people the opportunity for good health.

Click here for the Mahmood study and here for further reporting on it. For more on persistent patterns of school segregation, click here. The editorial by Sharpton et al is here.

Vivian Malone Registering at the University of Alabama, photograph by Warren K. Leffler, donated to the Library of Congress by U.S. News and World Report and dedicated to the public domain.

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April 29, 2022