Race represents the recognition of otherness, but in contrast to the many other ways that people choose to group individuals, the outward differences society associates with race is inherently unchangeable. This means that individuals who are persecuted or marginalized for something they have no control over find themselves struggling with an identity that has brought suffering into their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Belonging to a marginalized or persecuted racial group can therefore foster feelings that range from self-loathing to pride-filled defiance.
The psychological effects of racial identity in a race-based society, like the United States, can be both positive and negative, depending to a large extent on whether you belong to the majority or minority identity. The corporeal manifestation of race can therefore emerge as a change in mental and physical health. To better understand how race impacts a person's being, or corporeal state, this essay will examine scientific findings addressing various aspects of this issue.
The Health Hazards of Group Identity
Persons of Native American descent can generally be distinguished from other races by a cinnamon, reddish-brown skin color, broad faces, straight black hair, prominent noses, and minimal facial hair (Son of the South, 2008). However, being Native American in contemporary society is much more than sharing common physical features, it can also mean embodying the effects of belonging to a marginalized group. These effects include high unemployment, family violence, substance abuse, and alienation (Bell and Lim, 2005).
The overall, long-term impact of these conditions can have a devastating impact on Native American communities. For example, the prospect of facing this future can often motivate young Native Americans to seek alternatives to a traditional lifestyle, such as membership in a gang (Bell and Lim, 2005). The idea of forming a gang probably comes from being exposed to American culture through television and movies. The criminal lifestyle thus portrayed glamorizes violence and the pursuit of power and wealth. Compared to the grim future many of these young people face, the risks associated with gang membership probably seem insignificant.
The corporeal manifestation of belonging to a marginalized group, such as a Native American community, is primarily one of mental and physical health. Gang membership implies a change in values from service to the community, to one of violence, aggression, and power (Bell and Lim, 2005). The possibility of generating a criminal record increases, which will further limit opportunities for employment. These youth will not only continue to experience alienation from American culture, but also from the law-abiding citizens of their own communities. Academic performance will suffer, which will all but destroy any chance of attending college or getting a job requiring a high school diploma. When the mental health of African-American male gang members were examined, it was found that they suffer from an increased risk for violent behavior, depression, anxiety, and chronic substance abuse (Harper, Davidson, and Hosek, 2008). The results of this study suggests that the cycle of violence and addiction will continue, in part because Native American youth chose a gang lifestyle. In other words, these youth ensured that they would live the future they were trying to escape by joining a gang.
The Protective Effect of Group Identity
There are, however, advantages to being conferred a racial identity. The adage that there is safety in numbers is of course true, or state powers would not maintain large standing armies. There may even be an evolutionary advantage to group membership. Swann and colleagues (2010) examined this possibility and found commitment to group values and goals confers a physiological/psychological reaction that reinforces membership.
Group membership though, can sometimes create internal conflicts. More than a few social identity theorists believe the relationship between personal and social identity is mutually exclusive, which implies that someone who develops a strong sense of individual identity will be relatively indifferent towards pressures to conform to group expectations (reviewed by Swann, Gomez, Huici, Morales, and Hixon, 2010). The reverse would also be true, such that a strong group identity interferes with the development of an individual identity.
In contrast to the type of social identity these theorists support, identity fusion theorists suggests a person can retain much of their personal identity while still 'fusing' their identity with a group (reviewed by Swann, Gomez, Huici, Morales, and Hixon, 2010). Although fusing and shared identity are similar concepts, fusing implies adopting group traits as part of an individual's personal identity rather than simply being aware of shared traits and behaviors. Fusion represents a willingness to commit to group actions, which can sometimes result in extreme actions like suicide bombings, whereas shared identity does not. Fusion can thus result in strong expressions of group values, including patriotism, religion, ethnicity, and race.
The experiments conducted by Swann and colleagues (2010) revealed heightened arousal, due to physical exertion, increased the likelihood of fused members working together towards group goals. While non-fused members also experienced an elevated sense of belonging, fused members sought to direct this energy towards group goals. In this case, the group goals were charitable giving. This suggests that a fused group identity can generate strong expressions of group membership, which can lead to both extreme good and anti-social actions. These findings also suggest that the war dances that Native Americans engaged in before conflict would increase the sense of group identity, thereby giving them the ability to face serious injury or death on behalf of the community.
The psychological advantages of group membership were also revealed when a meta-analysis examined the strength of evidence for a relationship between mental health and acculturation (Yoon et al., 2012). The analysis revealed that acculturation by immigrants predicted an increased risk of both negative and positive mental health outcomes. In contrast, enculturation, which is the process of buffering oneself and family from the host country's culture by settling within an immigrant community, was significantly associated with positive mental health outcomes only. The corporeal manifestation of race can therefore take the form of changes in mental health, in both a negative and positive direction, and group identity in some circumstances can help protect mental health. There is thus safety in similarity.
The Protective Effect of Individual Identity
The negative psychological effects of racial discrimination can lead to poor academic performance and emotional problems among inner city African-American youth (reviewed by Nussbaum and Steele, 2007). When confronted with discriminatory attitudes in school and society at large, these children are taught that they are different, inferior, and should have low expectations of themselves and their 'race'. However, some of these children will succeed despite the obstacles placed in their path. Researchers have attributed this resiliency to the ability of these children to distance themselves from lower expectations and discriminatory attitudes through a process called psychological disengagement and disidentification. What this psychological tactic does is preserve their identity as an academic student pursuing success, while discounting negative feedback that they attribute to racist attitudes. Choosing when and where to employ this survival technique is called situational disidentification. These youth therefore manifest race as an expectation of discrimination, but are able to limit its expression to situations involving racially-motivated negative appraisals.
Death by Race
The corporeal manifestation of race can also be measured in terms of mortality. Contemporary African-Americans are living under the burden of historical discrimination and one of the more obvious outcomes is an average lower economic status. Based on a study conducted in California that examined the variables of race and socioeconomic status, life expectancy can be dramatically affected by racial identity. The difference between the longest-living California residents, Asian-American females, and the shortest-living, African-American males, is 20 years (84.9 vs. 65.3) (Clarke et al., 2010). The authors of this study pointed out that this difference is essentially equivalent to the life expectancy difference between a western country like Japan and a third-world country like Bangladesh (82 vs. 63).
In support of the conclusion that life-expectancy was a function of race, one of the demographics that benefited the most from improved socioeconomic status was African-Americans (Clarke et al., 2010). However, the estimated average life expectancy of African-American males may be an artifact of incarceration rates. A recent study examined the impact of incarceration on life expectancies of different racial groups and found that incarceration actually provided a protective effect against death for African-Americans (Patterson, 2010). In fact, the life span discrepancy between African-American males and their White counterparts actually disappeared among the incarcerated population, because the life span of African-American males increased relative to the non-incarcerated segment.
The protective effect of incarceration for African-American males against death has created a paradox. In the United States, 14% and 61% of males between 16 and 29 years of age are African-American and White, respectively (KFF, 2006). This represents a ratio of 4.4 White males for every African-American male. The percentage of African-American and White males incarcerated at any one time is 10.1% and 1.5%, respectively. The results of this study suggest…