Cases of police brutality can have a wide-reaching effect on children’s health, even before they are born. New research out of Harvard shows that police killings of unarmed African Americans has led to decreased birth weight and gestational age of black infants whose pregnant mothers resided nearby.
The research analyzed about a decade’s worth of data from California — birth statistics as well as police killings that occurred in nearby locales, including 164 cases involving unarmed black victims. The lower birth weights and higher incidence of preterm birth that were detected for black babies could not be detected in white or Hispanic babies, or when police killings involved armed black people or victims of other races.
In addition, the closer the mothers resided to the incident of police violence, the more pronounced the negative health outcomes were. And even within the same family, the pattern held: when one sibling was born after a nearby police shooting and another was not, the pregnancy that coincided with the police violence had worse outcomes.
The paper concludes that the negative health outcomes are due to the mothers’ “stress and anxiety related to perceived injustice and discrimination.” According to the study’s author, Harvard sociologist Joscha Legewie, the results demonstrate one way that systemic racism exacerbates itself. He writes, “Police violence thus has spillover effects on the health of newborn infants that contribute to enduring black-white disparities in infant health and the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage at the earliest stages of life.”
Margaret Hicken, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan, thinks that the explanation of the research results may also be connected to the idea of vigilance: “Black men and women need to continually anticipate and worry about how they are perceived in society. They constantly need to prove that they are worthy of their humanity because our institutions don’t view it that way.” Police shootings of unarmed community members, as well as the media coverage of such events, can worsen this type of chronic stress.
Legewie’s analysis adds to a growing body of research on the unique health challenges that Black mothers and babies face. Premature births are much more common among black women than among white women, and research has shown that chronic worry about racial discrimination may be an important factor in this disparity. Legewie’s paper adds the specific cultural and environmental factor of police discrimination to the mix: “Doing this kind of work helps us think more broadly about the impact policing has” on community health, he says.