A new study led by researchers at Florida State University has found a strong link between unfair treatment by police and Black men’s telomere length, a biological indicator of psychological stress.
The research team surveyed a large group of Black and White men in Nashville. The study measured perceived unfair treatment by police through questions about whether the men personally experienced or knew of a loved one who had been stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by law enforcement. The results found that 51.2 percent of Black men participants reported unfair treatment by police towards themselves or others, compared to only 22 percent of White male participants.
Additionally, the researchers took blood samples from participants to get a measure of average telomere length. Telomeres are found on the end of chromosomes and protect DNA integrity. The length of telomeres reflects psychological stress, with shorter telomeres being an indication of higher levels of stress. The results found that telomeres were shorter for participants who reported unfair police treatment, and the link was more pronounced among Black participants. Previous research has suggested that telomere shortening contributes to cardiovascular diseases.
This new research reveals the potential physiological damage among Black men incurred by the “stress burden” of unfair treatment by police and confirms that this stress burden is not limited to those directly exposed but extends to those who vicariously experience unfair treatment.
“More people in the population may be affected by knowing a victim of discriminatory policing than by being victims themselves,” said lead author Michael McFarland, assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University. “Because our study suggests that unfair treatment has physiological consequences, it seems likely that more insidious forms of police maltreatment will have detrimental consequences as well for the broader population.”
The full study, “Perceived Unfair Treatment by Police, Race, and Telomere Length: A Nashville Community-based Sample of Black and White Men,” was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and may be accessed here.