History of lynchings in southern states affecting health outcomes even today

COLUMBIA, S. C. — A study by researchers at the University of South Carolina found that counties in the United States with a history of lynchings have a higher mortality rate now than other counties.

For the study, researchers investigated the relationship between lynchings — unpunished, racially-motivated murders — and contemporary death rates. They found that, even when accounting for socioeconomic and educational factors, the death rate for the overall populations of counties was higher between 2010 and 2014 if lynchings took place in those counties in the past.

Previous research has uncovered a link between historic lynching in communities and contemporary problems such as housing and incarceration rates. In this study, the researchers isolated the history of lynchings in a county with present mortality rates.

“While white mortality rates were still consistently lower than those of their African American counterparts, this relative advantage was somewhat lessened by living in a county with a history of racial violence,” explains lead researcher Janice Probst of the University of South Carolina, in a statement. “This means that while being the target of race-based bias is the more severe condition, bias also has a cost for the dominant population.”

Probst and her colleagues obtained county-level data showing the number of lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in 1221 counties in 12 Southern states. These numbers were standardized to the 1930 population statistics, and divided into four categories from lowest numbers of lynchings (zero) to highest.

Next, the research team acquired age-adjusted mortality rates for each county from 2010 to 2014 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wonder database. They found

Based on this data and accounting for socioeconomic factors like family income, health insurance, location of households, and more, the researchers estimated that living in a county today that had a high number of lynchings in the past is associated with 34.9 additional deaths per hundred thousand per year for white males, 31 deaths for African-American females, and 23.7 more deaths for white females.

“Strange fruit yields strange harvest, among both Black and white populations,” adds Probst, referencing the poet Abel Meeropol. “While we cannot change the past, we can identify key problems and work to change the future.”

The study is published in Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.