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Ohio State researcher finds racial segregation had surprising health effects

Trevon Logan, an Ohio State economics professor, co-authored a study analyzing health effects of segregated rural and urban communities in North Carolina from 1909 to 1975. Credit: Matt Dorsey | Engagement Editor

Communities that were once separated by black and white led to outcomes that were, well, not so black and white, a recent study by an Ohio State economist suggests.

Trevon Logan, an Ohio State economics professor, and John Parman, an associate economics professor at the College of William and Mary, co-authored a research paper — published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine — which used a new measurement to track the racial segregation level of North Carolina communities from 1909 to 1975, and examined some health effects of that segregation.

The research led to a surprise finding.

“The more segregated areas actually had better health outcomes for black individuals in terms of longer life spans,” Parman said. “That is not what we expected to find.”

In urban areas, black men in highly segregated communities lived an average of 10 years longer than men in communities with average segregation levels, the study found. Women, on average, lived about five years longer.

In rural areas, black men lived an average of about six years longer in highly segregated communities and women an average of about four years longer.

The result is unexpected, Logan said, because as Americans, “we always think about segregation being bad, bad, bad and bad all the time.” And while segregation is, of course, not desirable, he said that thinking can lead to people missing some things when looking at all of its impacts.

“For some health effects, it might be good not to be so intermixed,” he said. “If disease and pathogens are spread through spatially, it might be to your advantage to actually be separated.”

The study, originally published in July, analyzed census data from North Carolina and compared it to recently digitized death certificates from the area.

North Carolina was chosen because it was the first state to digitize its death-certificate data, a move that Logan said saved tens of thousands of hours in data sorting.

Logan and Parman developed a way to measure segregation while working on a previous research project.

“What actually got the ball rolling on this project, which has been a few years in the making, was talking about Trevon’s grandmother, who would say that when she grew up, the neighbors on her street were different races,” Parman said.

The two were surprised to hear that about a Southern neighborhood in the middle of the 20th century, he said, and it provoked Logan and him to wonder how many other neighborhoods had perhaps been more integrated than they had previously assumed.

Eventually, the conversation led to them completely revolutionizing how segregation in communities was measured.

Previously, the measurement was determined by dividing up a highly populated location into arbitrarily drawn statistical areas, then looking at the distribution of racial groups in each of those, relative to the city’s racial proportion overall, Logan said.

Not only did this approach fail to give a representative picture of what individual neighborhoods looked like, but it also left no possible way to measure segregation levels in rural areas because of the low population density, Logan said.

Parman said the lack of rural data was especially troubling for the time period the two economists were looking to study because the majority of black households lived in rural areas.

The pair thought about how censuses had been taken door-to-door and realized the actual census manuscripts would give a picture of who was living next to whom, allowing them to develop their new measurement.

The breakthrough was considerable, especially in allowing them to analyze rural areas where there had previously been no measurements of segregation.

“Now we can talk about rural areas being segregated or integrated and the effect that that would have on other outcomes,” Logan said.

Additionally, the findings of the health effects study could lead to a future examination of the role community organizations might have had in the lives of segregated black community members, Parman said.

“Does a more segregated area have different roles for, say, the churches, for the local doctors, for services provided by the government, services provided by organizations?” he said.

Beyond studying segregation, Logan said he hopes he and Parman’s data-gathering about rural communities leads to a public understanding that they are diverse, something he said he does not think is widely understood.

“I think it’s time to accept that complexity,” Logan said. “And that makes the way that we analyze this country a lot more difficult, but I think that’s exactly what we need to do.”

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