Worn down: Expert to discuss health impacts of stress of being Black at Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture
David Williams, a Harvard University social scientist, will explain in a Sept. 16 virtual talk how the everyday indignities and disrespect experienced by Black Americans erode their health, leading to more than 200 premature deaths each day
Imagine a jumbo jet packed with 220 people crashing every single day. It’s an unfathomable tragedy, yet it represents the number of Black people who die prematurely each day in the United States, says David Williams, a Harvard University social scientist focused on social influences on health.
For an individual, the health impact of racial disparities is not as sudden as a plane crash, said Williams, the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at Harvard University, in a "60 Minutes" interview in April. It’s more like stone wearing away from repeated drips of water – the sum of small indignities and disrespect Black people experience every day.
A stone “becomes eroded by the constant exposure to adversity,” Williams said. “And so what the research is suggesting, is that all of these stressors are weathering African Americans in the same way.”
Williams – an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Science, and the National Academy of Arts and Sciences – will discuss the role of race and other factors in health disparities in a virtual talk titled “Social Inequities in Health: What Each One of Us Can Do,” at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.
The talk is part of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke. The series is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the importance of bringing top scientists to Roanoke. The lecture will be available to all free of charge on via Zoom.
“Dr. Williams is one of the most influential thought leaders in the United States on the impact of race, stress, health behaviors, and religious involvement on health. The measure he developed, the Everyday Discrimination Scale, is a widely used tool for assessing discrimination in health,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Disparate health outcomes are a problem across the United States, including right here in the Roanoke Valley. It’s one thing to identify and count these impacts and quite another to actually contribute to understanding why and how they occur. We’re extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Williams on contemporary understanding of these effects and how we can go about changing the trajectory of the health outcomes.”
The Everyday Discrimination Scale, which tracks those daily indignities and stressors, predicts a broad range of adverse health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and poorer mental health, according to Williams.
Williams’ research has shown that Black Americans experience worse health regardless of wealth and education – even when they are clinically treated in the same settings as white people. Yet Williams sees reason for optimism about racism and social inequities in the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020.
“I think we are at a crossroads in the United States,” Williams said in the "60 Minutes" interview. “I think we are in a moment of reckoning, of understanding race and how profoundly race continues to matter for health.”
Williams received the American Sociological Association’s Leo G. Reeder Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology and the Leonard I. Pearlin Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Sociological Study of Mental Health. He was also awarded the Distinguished Leadership in Psychology Award from the Committee on Socioeconomic Status of the American Psychological Association, and the Gold Medal of Merit from his native country, Saint Lucia.
Williams has been a TEDMED speaker and served as a scientific advisor to the award-winning PBS film series, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”
Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in theology from the University of the Southern Caribbean in Trinidad, a master’s degree in divinity from Andrews University in Michigan, a master’s degree in public health in health education from Loma Linda University, and master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Michigan.