In 1968, Iowa schoolteacher Jane Elliott attempted to teach her students about racism by treating them differently based on eye color. She produced a powerful educational technique that is still celebrated today, but also made an observation social scientists struggled to accept: suffering discrimination, even briefly, affected her children's scores on intelligence tests. More than 50 years later, research gives some backing to Elliott's claims, finding lifetime exposure to racism can harm memory and cognition.
Since 1995, 59,000 black women aged 21-69 have been tracked for the Black Women's Health Study. Along with more traditional health questions, they were asked questions both about their experiences of racism and questions like how well they understand conversations or remember events. The later produce a subjective cognitive function (SCF) score.
Two decades later, Professor Lynn Rosenberg of Boston University looked at changes for 17,000 of them and found the more racism a woman in her study faced on a daily basis, the more likely she was to suffer low SCF. In Alzheimer's & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring, she reports that those in the group suffering racism most frequently were 2.75 times as likely to have low SCF as those whose encounters with racism were rare.
The results are consistent with evidence that being the victim of discrimination is psychologically damaging and can take a toll across the brain, particularly when the bias is for something over which one has no control.
"Our findings of a positive association of experiences of racism with poorer subjective cognitive function are consistent with previous work demonstrating that higher perceived psychological stress is associated with greater subjective memory decline," Rosenberg said in a statement. "Our work suggests that the chronic stress associated with racial discrimination may contribute to racial disparities in cognition and Alzheimer's Disease."
The work highlights the extent to which casual racism does lasting harm to its victims, potentially denying them the very opportunities that might otherwise allow them to escape the environments where they suffer the most. There must also be a very large cost to society in having so much unnecessary cognitive decline.
The pathways through which racism has this impact are less clear, but Rosenberg and co-authors think depression and loss of sleep account for at least a quarter.
Elliott spent a week treating students with blue and green eyes like a racial underclass, belittling their achievements, and punishing them more harshly for minor infringements. Meanwhile, brown-eyed students were venerated, given better food, and forgiven any misbehavior. The following week, Elliott reversed the statuses, with the blue-eyed children now the privileged ones. Tests taken at the end of each week showed a dip in results for those suffering discrimination. Even more surprisingly, at the end of their week of being favored, students did better than at other times. Elliott's effect in such a short time span may still be controversial, but Rosenberg's findings certainly indicate something similar occurs over a lifetime.