Overview

I identify primarily as a medical sociologist, with a focus on population stress and health disparities. I want to know why length and quality of life tend to vary for different socially categorized persons. I also want to know how different groups of people learn to adapt to their positions within society, despite limited resources, and how such learned coping strategies ultimately impact health for better or worse.

Status Striving and High-Effort Coping

Mainstream sociopolitical discourse often portrays the United States as a land of equal opportunity. Indeed, the notion that anyone can achieve success if they work hard enough and play by the rules is a key tenet of the "American Dream." As some of my latest studies reveal, however, this dominant ideology disregards the unequal efforts still required for historically marginalized groups, particularly Black Americans, to achieve higher status in the post-Civil Rights era. 

In a 2020 study, published in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that Black Americans report higher "goal-striving stress" than White Americans, or perceived achievement-aspiration gaps with overwhelming barriers to aspirations. And while Black Americans with higher goal-striving stress tend to report better mental health than their White peers, they also exhibit higher levels of blood pressure, stress hormones, and John Henryism, an index of persistent and high-effort striving in the face of barriers to success. These findings suggest that Black Americans still perceive more ominous structural barriers to their aspirations than White Americans, barriers that ultimately require intense and costly physiological adaptations.

In a 2022 study, published in Social Forces, I find that Black residents of higher-status and mostly White neighborhoods in Nashville, Tennessee initially exhibit lower levels of stress hormones than their Black peers in lower-status and mostly Black areas. However, the former group also reports more unfair treatment, which then predicts higher levels of goal-striving stress, bodily pain, stress hormones, and blood pressure. Due to the health-suppressing effects of discrimination, Black residents ultimately exhibit comparable health outcomes regardless of neighborhood context.

In a brand new study, forthcoming in Demography, co-authors and I show that White and light-skin Black Americans report improved health after attaining higher socioeconomic status during the transition to adulthood, while their dark-skin Black peers report declining health. We then show that these patterns are explained by more unfair treatment, lower subjective status, and inflammation among dark-skin Black participants.

These three studies highlight two key themes. First, anti-Black racism is alive and well in the United States, and continues to undermine the health of Black Americans who strive for higher status within predominantly White spaces. Second, although exercising agency and resilience can be psycho-socially adaptive, marginalized groups often pay exorbitant physiological costs from having to persist in the face of structural barriers to attainment, costs that are often overlooked in traditional social surveys lacking biomarker data.

Religious Involvement

A recent Pew survey found that 83% of citizens in the United States profess "certain" or "fairly certain" belief in a personal deity. Other similar surveys find that historically marginalized groups, particularly Black Americans, are among the most religious groups in the country. These findings suggest that most of the population relies on religious resources to cope with life exigencies, but especially marginalized groups who have been historically blocked from accessing mainstream health-promoting resources.

 

In one of my first studies, I found that belief in divine control helped people who experienced recent major life events maintain a positive outlook. Another study found that Black Americans who reported prior episodes of major discrimination were more satisfied with their lives if they were also more religiously involved. In a series of other studies, co-authors and I showed that religious beliefs and involvement are also conducive to improved sleep quality, especially for segments of the population experiencing extreme stressors like active-duty military personnel.

 

But religion can also promote fatalism and distress in other structurally constrained contexts. In one study, for instance, co-authors and I found that while sick and financially strained groups in the United States are more likely than their advantaged peers to rely on religious scripture to cope with stressors, doing so appears to exacerbate mental distress related to their disadvantaged social positions.