Police Shootings of Unarmed Black Americans May Affect Health of Black Infants

Maternal stress related to perceived racial discrimination may contribute to premature births and lower birth weights

Eric garner protest
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A new study has found that police killings of unarmed black Americans may be linked to health problems for black infants who live in the area.

The research, published on Wednesday by sociologist Joscha Legewie in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, found that black infants born near the site of a police shooting of an unarmed black individual have a higher rate of being born prematurely and have a significantly lower birth weight than infants not born near similar incidents.

The study comes after several high-profile police killings of black individuals including Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, among others.

The findings illustrate how negative effects of officer-involved shootings can spread “far beyond the victim and their family members” and throughout an entire community and even multiple generations.

“Exposure to a single police killing of an unarmed black individual during pregnancy accounts for as much as a third of the black-white gap in birth weight,” the study reports. “This finding indicates that police violence is an environmental stressor that contributes to the stark and enduring black-white disparities in infant health and therefore the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage at the earliest stages of life.”

A low birth weight can affect the short-term health of the infant, but can also be a risk factor for future health problems, according the study and the Centers for Disease Control, including long-term problems like “delayed motor and social development or learning disabilities.”

The research was based on 3.9 million birth records in California from 2007 to 2016 and data on 1,891 police killings in California between 2005 and 2017, including 164 cases involving unarmed black victims.

The study found no similar link between police killings of either armed or unarmed white people or Latinos and the birth weights of white or Latino infants.

“This finding indicates that the effect is race specific and driven by perceptions of discrimination and structural racism instead of general threats of crime and violence,” the study said.

“We often think about police violence as having these individual-level consequences,” Kristin Turney, a sociologist at UC Irvine who was not involved in the study, told the Los Angeles Times. “But this paper is really innovative because it shows that police violence has spillover effects. … It can affect people even in utero.”

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