Carlos Tavares, assistant professor of sociology
The Course: Race, Racism, and Health in U.S. Society

We explore racial health inequalities, focusing on five areas:

  • contemporary theories of race and racism;
  • understanding the sources of racial health inequalities;
  • assessing how racism impacts various dimensions of health;
  • racial inequalities over the life course; and
  • protective mechanisms and potential policy solutions to address racial health inequalities.

This is the second time I’m teaching it, and despite the Zoom environment, students are really engaged. Things are clicking quickly. They are seeing the connections. Socioeconomic and racial disparities are playing out right now with COVID-19.

COVID-19 is shining a light on disparities. The pandemic has disproportionate effects—there are higher infection rates and mortality rates in racial minorities. It has exacerbated existing inequalities: social inequalities in health care, access to healthy food, environmental hazards with health implications. The pandemic has only made them more apparent.

The pandemic has given us a common experience: isolation. It’s difficult if you talk about a concept that is abstract—but now students are living it. They share how hard it is, how they are struggling. They are now very aware of the connection between lack of social support and overall health. It enables them to better understand how populations who lack support may struggle.

Racism isn’t going to magically go away anytime soon, so a driving question for me is what potential psychosocial resources might be protective for health?

It’s also a period of social unrest. There has been a lot of activism and protests in response to racism and police brutality. It’s been good to give students an opportunity to respond and engage.

We talk about psychological impacts of ‘witnessing’ events. Do we need to see videos showing police brutality? Is it traumatic to see them? Some have shared the lingering effects it has. And then we talk about how that chronic stress can affect physical and mental dimensions of health. There is a wear-and-tear effect that furthers health disparities.

Students are actively sharing ideas, sharing news stories they read, and asking if we can talk about it in class. It makes me very happy to see that and having them guide our discussions.

My research interests are in medical sociology, race and ethnicity, aging, and the life course. There’s a lot of research that focuses on discrimination, racism, and health. We have less research that tries to identify the buffering mechanisms, things that might lessen the impact of racism.

Racism isn’t going to magically go away anytime soon, so a driving question for me is what potential psychosocial resources might be protective for health? What are short-term interventions that can help people who are targets of discrimination?

Religious participation is one. One theory is that a congregation provides a significant, positive social support network.

My work shows that one’s racial identity may be another. But it can work both ways. If you have a strong racial identity and you experience high levels of racism, it can amplify the negative impact of racism on health. But if you don’t experience much discrimination, then a strong self-identify can be protective. In other words, if being Black is your central identity, then being confronted with regular, ongoing discrimination can be a major attack on who you are as a person.

I’m a life-course scholar as well. I am interested in the residual effects of early-childhood stressors. Childhood is viewed as a critical period. Exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage, environmental toxins, and other adverse childhood experiences have been linked to health outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.

I also study the role physicians play: What do they know about health disparities? How does that knowledge influence how they interact with patients of different races? Maternal health disparities are not explained away by socioeconomic status. Recent data suggest that infant mortality goes up with the education level of Black mothers. There is a large-scale structural racism that creates this environment where people are treated differently.

Representation is important. Having more Black physicians seems to have significant outcomes—it does matter. However, representation alone doesn’t change fundamentally flawed systems. It doesn’t address the larger issue about how they operate. For there to be really consequential change, it needs to happen at the institutional level—and at the societal level.