Students of color are healthier at schools that value diversity

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Students of color who attend schools with a culture that emphasizes the value of diversity show better cardiovascular health than peers whose schools don’t express such values, according to a new study.

Specifically, students of color had better heart health at schools whose mission statements mention goals such as serving a diverse student body and appreciating diversity and cultural differences. This same pattern did not emerge among white students.

Lead author Cynthia Levine, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, says some people might wonder whether schools whose mission statements emphasize the value of diversity are really different environments from schools whose mission statements do not, or if is this just rhetoric.

“We used another sample of schools in Chicago to check this, and we showed that schools whose mission statements mention diversity are schools where students of color are more academically successful and less likely to be disciplined,” says Levine, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University.

“For students of color, these schools that emphasize diversity are different environments in concrete ways,” she adds. “They may feel more supported and valued there, in a way that matters for their health.”

The importance of environment

Using a diverse sample of eighth-graders who attended more than 100 different schools in the Chicago area, the researchers categorized schools as emphasizing diversity if they had mission statements that mentioned:

  • the goals of respecting or valuing diversity
  • serving a diverse student body, including racially or culturally diverse perspectives in the curriculum, offering bilingual instruction, and helping students develop an awareness of other racial, ethnic, or cultural groups
  • meeting students’ cultural needs or preparing students to live in a multicultural or global world

“There’s research showing that when schools and workplaces recognize and appreciate diversity, people of color are more engaged and successful. Our work suggests that similar environments also can be good for health,” Levine says.

Other research shows that people who report they have experienced racial discrimination have worse health, Levine says, adding that her team’s work suggests that not only do experiences of poor treatment link to the health of people of color, but also potentially whether diversity is valued and explicitly recognized in their environments.

Levine and her coauthors looked at multiple biomarker outcomes—inflammation, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome—that previous research has prospectively linked to the development of cardiovascular disease later in life. Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of disability and death in the US, and there are racial disparities in its prevalence and mortality rates.

“In our work, it’s not just that students of color are being discriminated against,” Levine says. “In fact, we statistically control for students’ self-reported experiences of discrimination.”

Finding out why

Going forward, the researchers would like to understand more about what is happening in schools that emphasize diversity that makes them healthier environments for students of color. They have established that these are environments where students of color are more academically successful and disciplined less harshly.

“These schools may also have more teachers of color, have the perspectives of people of color represented in the curriculum to a greater degree, or have teachers who otherwise treat students of color in a more positive, supportive, and inclusive manner,” Levine says.

Greg Miller, senior author of the study and a professor of psychology at Northwestern, says that if the findings are replicated, “there may be implications for mounting preventive interventions in the school context around diversity and inclusion and studying how such efforts affect children’s lifestyle and physiology.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Institutes of Health; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the Russell Sage Foundation funded the study. Additional coauthors are from Stanford University and Northwestern.

Source: University of Washington