Abigail Sewell, assistant professor of sociology at Emory University, has dedicated her research to the intersections of race, policing, and health outcomes in diverse neighborhoods around the country.
“It’s important to recognize the ways in which we have colored criminality,” she said.
Sewell shared her findings during Franklin & Marshall College’s April 13 Common Hour, a community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session during the semester.
She called the United States the “carceral state,” and said the country maintains the highest incarceration rates in the world – a phenomenon that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, perhaps in part as a response to early successes of the Civil Rights Movement.
Through several metrics, Sewell showed that African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than whites. In fact, people of color have a much deeper “embeddedness of incarceration,” as they are more likely to know an imprisoned person, a family member, friend or neighbor.
People of color are also more likely to be stopped and frisked, to be asked to get out of their cars when they are pulled over, and to be arrested. African Americans are 13 percent of the American population, but they account for 31 percent of deaths by police violence. Sewell said these inequalities signal discriminatory mindsets through the highly-systematized police training programs.
To draw the correlation, Sewell reported on the mortality rates of people who engaged with the legal system. While prisoners have the lowest mortality rates, parolees suffer the highest number of deaths, influenced by reintegration into the communities, stresses or traumas after imprisonment, or continued surveillance by police in their neighborhoods.
Sewell identified different forms of “surveillance stress” that are caused by over-policing, including everyday stressors, ecological stressors within a “climate of fear,” negative coping mechanisms, and general perceptions of injustice and discrimination that reinforce existing fears.
In addition to police violence and brutality, these stressors have a significant influence on public health including increased rates of physical ailments like diabetes, high blood pressures, and obesity, as well as mental stressors like nervousness and feelings of worthlessness.
Sewell’s research assesses the health effects across many intersections of identity: racial group membership, gender, age, nativity, household size, marital status, language at home, household education, family income, and much more. Every neighborhood and every home has a different composition of these factors.
In diverse neighborhoods with heavy police surveillance, Sewell said the entire community suffers, not just people of color who are more likely to encounter the police. That’s because health is a condition of community. It’s a priority, then, to understand the intersections of race, gender, health, and criminal justice in order to create solutions that help communities thrive.