Google searches could unveil patterns in Black mortality rates across the U.S., according to a new University of Maryland study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers found that those areas with greater levels of racism, as indexed by the proportion of Google searches containing the “n-word,” had higher mortality rates among Blacks. The study, led by Dr. David H. Chae, assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is the first to examine an Internet query-based measure of racism in relation to mortality risk.
“Racial disparities in health and disease are a significant public health concern. Research suggests that racism is a major contributing factor to the gap in mortality between Blacks and Whites,” said Chae. “Our study points to the utility of an Internet-search based measure to monitor racism at the area-level and assess its association with mortality.”
Most research examining the link between racism and health has relied on people self-reporting whether they had been the victims of racial discrimination, which may not fully capture the extent of racism in a geographic area given that racist acts are often not committed overtly.
Given the challenges in measuring racism through surveys, the researchers used a proxy measure, previously developed by study co-author Dr. Seth I. Stephens-Davidowitz, based on the volume of searches for the “n-word” ending in -er or -ers, not including those ending in -a or -as as such searches were often used in different contexts. This measure does not necessitate that all searches containing the “n-word” are motivated by racism, or that all people holding racist attitudes conduct such searches, but rather that areas with a greater concentration of these searches have higher levels of racism overall. The researchers wanted to examine whether this measure would predict differences in Black mortality rates across the country.