Steph masih [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 6, 2019; The Root

According to a new study published last Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, police killings of unarmed black people “can affect people before they are even born,” writes Anne Branigin in The Root. The study, authored by Harvard sociologist Joscha Legewie, finds that, “Pregnant black women who lived near the site of such officer-involved fatalities had their babies sooner than mothers who weren’t exposed to such incidents during their pregnancies. What’s more, those infants had significantly lower birth weights—a risk factor for future health problems.”

Legewie based his study on California data from nearly 2,000 police shootings and 3.9 million birth records from 2007 to 2016. Among the findings, Legewie reports, “In utero exposure to police killings of unarmed blacks within one kilometer of mother’s residence substantially reduces the birth weight of black infants by 50 to over 80 grams, depending on the model specification and trimester of exposure. The size of this effect is substantial for exposure during the first and second trimesters.” By contrast, Legewie adds that third trimester impact was negligible, “in line with previous research showing reduced effects of stressors at later stages of fetal development.”

Legewie adds that:

Exposure to a single police killing of an unarmed black individual during pregnancy accounts for as much as a third of the black-white gap in birth weight. This finding indicates that police violence is an environmental stressor that contributes to the stark and enduring black-white disparities in infant health and therefore the inter-generational transmission of disadvantage at the earliest stages of life. Birth weight and gestational age are not only related to infant death in the short term; the consequences are long term with implications for cognitive development, test scores, ADHD, and others.

In the Los Angeles Times, University of California, Irvine sociologist Kirsten Turney observes, “We often think about police violence as having these individual-level consequences. But this paper is really innovative because it shows that police violence has spillover effects…it can affect people even in utero.”

In the same Los Angeles Times article, Amanda Geller, a sociologist at New York University concurred that, “This is an important finding and a very intuitive one. The fact that it is so clear and so clearly, methodologically, rigorously documented is really important.”

Neither Turney nor Geller were involved in Legewie’s study.

As Branigin writes, “Legewie’s study adds another layer to our understanding of secondhand and generational trauma. The cultural conversation around these issues has expanded in recent years, thanks to an expanding body of research, and to explorations of the issue in films, books, and TV shows like Watchmen.”

Low birth weight, Branigin adds, “can have dire impacts on a baby’s physical and mental maturation.” Underweight babies are more prone to develop chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. And, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, low birth weights can also lead to learning disabilities and delays in social development.

In his article, Legewie emphasizes that one important implication of his research is to “highlight the broader implications and social costs of police use of fatal force far beyond the victim and their family members. Understanding the effects environmental stressors such as police violence have on infant health is important for the design and implementation of interventions that attempt to mitigate the negative consequences, reduce disparities in infant health and early child development, and promote a culture of health.”—Steve Dubb