There's a disturbing connection with black mortality.

People don't like to admit they're racist. Some may not even realize the extent of their discriminatory tendencies. But Google knows. You can't hide from Google.

That's the basic premise behind a new U.S. map showing where people Google the N-word most often. The image, compiled by a large study team led by social epidemiologist David Chae of the University of Maryland, reflects search queries for the word from 2004 to 2007 in 196 media markets (as defined by Nielsen). The map appears in a new PLoS One paper (spotted by Wonkblog's Christopher Ingraham) as part of a larger study into the connection between racism and public health.

Red areas below—located mostly in the Northeast and the South—are places where such searches occurred more than average over this period. Green areas, largely found in the West and Mountain regions, were considerably below average. Yellow and orange areas are slightly below or slightly above average, respectively.

PLoS One

In making the map, Chae and collaborators hope to add a new layer of insight into the study of how racism impacts public health. Scholars recognize that racism can take a physical toll in a number of ways—lower income via fewer job prospects, unhealthy food options based on residential segregation, and stress, among them. But efforts to connect health and discrimination are complicated by the fact that "systematic, institutionalized, subtle, or otherwise hidden" forms of racism might go undetected in self-report surveys, write Chae and company.

Hence: Google. In their new paper, Chae and company suggest that Internet searches for the N-word might "may serve as a more direct indicator of racial attitudes and the extent of discrimination and prejudice towards Blacks in a geographic area," especially compared with surveys that rely on questionnaires. (Previous work revealed links between this type of "racially charged" searching and patterns in voting for Barack Obama.) The researchers focused only on variants of the N-word ending in –er, not –a, given potential differences in meaning.

For the current study, the researchers paired the Google searches with data on mortality among African Americans over age 25. The health figures included all-cause mortality as well as deaths related to heart disease, cancer, strokes, and diabetes.

The connection they found was a disturbingly strong one. Simply put, in areas where people searched the N-word more often, black mortality rates were higher. The link remained statistically significant even when controlling for other factors that influence African American health, such as urban environments and socioeconomics, as well as when taking white mortality rates into account. It held up broadly for all causes of mortality as well as for deaths caused by heart disease, cancer, and stroke (though not diabetes).

The technical findings, for those interested:

DMAs characterized by a one standard deviation greater level of area racism were associated with an 8.2% increase in the all-cause Black mortality rate, equivalent to over 30,000 deaths annually. The magnitude of this effect was attenuated to 5.7% after adjustment for DMA-level demographic and Black socioeconomic covariates.

And the less-technical conclusion:

These findings indicate that area racism, as indexed by the proportion of Google searches containing the “N- word”, is significantly associated with not only the all-cause Black mortality rate, but also Black-White disparities in mortality.

A couple key cautions. The statistical findings can't say for sure that racism caused the health problems in question. The researchers also can't tell from the data whether or not search queries with the N-word were actually racist. But the fact that the researchers found any measurable connection at all, given these limitations, is a strong sign that something is going on that's worth investigating further.

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