and graduate from college. They also face interpersonal racial
hassles and microaggressions, such as receiving poor service or
This article details the consequences of racial discrimination
and the protective factors that can mitigate its negative
consequences for African-American emerging adults. In
addition, we recommend areas for future research and discuss
research applications that may help to support this population.
Physiological and physical health effects
Research shows that racial discrimination takes a serious
biological toll on African-Americans. For those ages 16 to 18,
racial discrimination over the past year has been positively
associated with allostatic load — the wear and tear of the
biological systems — by age 20. Cumulative and chronic racial
discrimination are associated with many negative biological and
health outcomes, including elevated blood pressure, increased
heart rate and risk for cardiovascular diseases, and cellular
aging. Racial discrimination is also linked to the dysregulation
of the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis, which helps the
body control reactions to stress and regulates such key functions
as the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, digestion,
and energy storage and expenditure.
Research shows how discrimination leads to these physical
effects in African-Americans: When an African-American
perceives or experiences racial discrimination, his or her
body may activate an exaggerated fight-or-flight response.
For example, in one study, African-American college women
who attributed an imagined shoplifting accusation to racial
discrimination had greater increases in their blood pressure
compared with African-American college women who did not
attribute the charge to racial discrimination.
Importantly, such fight-or-flight responses to racial
discrimination may linger long after the offending incident.
This is noteworthy because prolonged fight-or-flight responses
to stressful events lead to disease and premature death.
Research has also found that greater exposure to racial
discrimination exacerbates cardiovascular reactivity. As a
result, racial discrimination may “get under the skin” first by
activating chronic fight-or-flight responses that contribute to
dysregulation (such as heightened cardiovascular activity) and,
second, by contributing to more acute cardiovascular responses
to later stressful situations, both racial and nonracial.
Worry, rumination and anticipatory stress about
discrimination may also exacerbate an individual’s physiological
stress responses — and that, in turn, may make one susceptible
to multiple disease conditions. For example, several researchers
have posited that African-Americans’ elevated nocturnal blood
pressure levels and poorer sleep quality — compared with
whites’ — may be manifestations of chronically heightened
vigilance about the constant threat of discrimination. Further
research has found that racism-related vigilance was associated
with more sleep difficulty for black adults than white adults and
that the disparity in sleep quality between the two groups was
eliminated after adjusting for racism-related vigilance.
Fortunately, not all African-Americans experience severe
racial discrimination-related consequences. For example, one
study found no association between racial discrimination and
allostatic load for African-American emerging adults who
received high levels of parental and peer emotional support — a
finding that suggests emotional support may buffer the negative
effects of racial discrimination.
Psychological effects of racial discrimination
Empirical research has suggested that racial discrimination is
related to depression, suicide, violence, stress disorders and
maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance use, among
African-Americans. Some literature has shown that such
negative psychological outcomes are worsened as perceptions
of discrimination increase. Daily discrimination appears to
increase psychological risk.
Further, there is consensus among scholars that
suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior are linked to racial
discrimination. Perceived discrimination increases the risk for a
suicide attempt by decreasing the individual’s feelings of efficacy
or mastery of his or her environment, increasing social isolation
and reducing social support and other positive coping strategies.
Racial discrimination is also associated with violent
behavior. Suicide and physical violence (self- and other-directed) may be construed as coping mechanisms in response
to a stressful, traumatic experience. Emerging adults who
experience or perceive racial discrimination may cope with this
experience by acting out in defensively violent ways. One 2011
study supported a positive association between internalized
racism and physical violence and delinquent behavior among
Welcome to ‘CE Corner’
“CE Corner” is a continuing-education article
offered by the APA Office of CE in Psychology.
This feature will provide you with updates on
critical developments in psychology, drawn from
peer-reviewed literature and written by leading
To earn CE credit, after you read this
article, purchase the online exam at www.apa.
Upon successful completion of the test —
a score of 75 percent or higher — you can
immediately print your CE certificate. The test fee
is $25 for members and $35 for nonmembers.
The APA Office of CE in Psychology retains
responsibility for the program. For more
information, call (800) 374-2721.