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Can't Buy Me Whiteness: New Lessons from the Titanic on Race, Ethnicity, and Health

Publication Abstract

Pearson, Jay. 2008. "Can't Buy Me Whiteness: New Lessons from the Titanic on Race, Ethnicity, and Health." Du Bois Review, 5(1): 27-47.

A basic tenet of public health is that there is a robust relationship between socioeconomic status and health. Researchers widely accept that persons at average or median levels of socioeconomic status have better health compared to those at lower levels—with a detectable, if diminishing, gradient at even higher levels of socioeconomic status. The research on which this tenet is based, however, focuses largely on Whites, especially on White men. Yet according to the full range of extant findings, the magnitude and in some cases the direction of this relationship vary considerably for other demographic groups.

I argue that the failure to clearly qualify study conclusions when they are restricted to the study of Whites impedes our understanding of the varying relationship between socioeconomic status and health for different demographic groups. Such an impediment is particularly harmful when considering health inequalities among populations defined by race and ethnicity. Frameworks and models based on traditional socioeconomic measures may mask heterogeneity, overestimate the benefits of material resources, underestimate psychosocial and physical health costs of resource acquisition for some groups, and overlook the value of alternative sociocultural orientations. These missed opportunities have grave consequences: large racial/ethnic health disparities persist while the health disadvantages of Black Americans continue to grow in key aspects. A new knowledge base is needed if racial/ethnic health disparities are to be eliminated, including new guiding theoretical frameworks, reinterpretations of existing research, and new empirical research. This article aims to initiate discussion on all three dimensions.

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