Understanding and Addressing Racial Inequalities

June 10, 2020

ANN ARBOR – In this episode of Michigan Minds, Margaret Hicken, MPH, PhD, Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social Research and the Division of Nephrology, discusses her research exploring how place, history, and the environment factor into racial health inequities. She also discusses what led her to create the RacismLab, a transdisciplinary research collective working to better understand the impact of racism on health and well-being.

Hicken has been exploring that history—and the history of place specifically—affects health outcomes today. She examines the role of racial segregation and how that results in inequities in social features of the environment such as pollution. She is also studying the linkage of historical racial violence to contemporary environmental racism.

“That’s what I call slow violence. It doesn’t necessarily kill people immediately, but it is the slow violence that wears away at people’s health over time and is passed on through generations,” she says.

Hicken explains that society continues to change the form racial control takes. It was once slavery, then Jim Crow and lynching, and now she says it is through the criminal justice system and environmental justice.

Hickens says she understands that her research is long term, but rather than let that deter her, she found a way to have a more immediate impact.

“We’re in it for the long haul to make these important major structural changes, but there are things I knew I could do now, where I thought that I could see change at least to help keep me motivated for selfish reasons, but also to use my privilege to help benefit others.”

So, five years ago, she started the RacismLab to bring together doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty to develop innovative theoretical frameworks and empirical approaches to further explore the effects of racism. She sees it as a space for scholars who study racism to hone their ideas and get through the dissertation process and help them through the transition period between doctoral work and professional life.

“It’s an interdisciplinary workgroup to really help promote the scholarship and the career progression of scholars who study racism from a critical lens. And nearly all of the scholars who do this work are scholars of color,” she says.

The scholars in the RacismLab can share their ideas and research projects with the group without fear, Hicken says.

“Everybody is giving them feedback in their own best interest,” she adds. “Everybody is in their corner.”