Dr. Arline Geronimus, professor in the Department of Health Education, speaks at Deepening Diversity: A DEI of Public Health Consequence where she was awarded the James S. Jackson Distinguished Career Award for Diversity Scholarship Thursday evening. Sarah Boeke/Daily. Buy this photo.

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Dr. Arline Geronimus, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, was presented with the James S. Jackson Distinguished Career Award for Diversity Scholarship Thursday during an event co-hosted by the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and the LSA National Center for Institutional Diversity.

The biennial award was first given in 2017 and was named after its first recipient, James S. Jackson, a psychology professor who researched issues related to race and health. Since then, the award has been given to honor the work of U-M faculty who have made significant contributions through research, scholarship, service and mentorship to the fields of diversity, inequality and justice. 

Tabbye Chavous, vice provost for equity and inclusion, said she believes Geronimus is incredibly deserving of the award due to her unique investigations into the intersections of health and societal marginalization.

“Dr. Geronimus originated an analytical framework, ‘weathering,’ well known to many of us now, that posits that the health of African-Americans is subject to early health deterioration as a consequence of social exclusion,” Chavous said. “Much of her scholarly work is related to testing this structurally rooted biopsychosocial model.”

During her graduate studies, Geronimus proposed her Weathering Hypothesis, which states that members of marginalized groups are often diagnosed with adverse health effects earlier in life because of the effect that chronic stress from sustained marginalization has on the body over time.

Geronimus then presented a lecture entitled “Deepening Diversity: A DEI of Public Health Consequence.” Throughout her talk, Geronimus reflected on her career and the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion at institutions of higher education. She said some of the inspiration for her work came from her Jewish roots. Her paternal grandparents escaped from Russian Pogroms in the early 1900s and eventually immigrated to the United States. Even after her grandparents immigrated, Geronimus said her father encountered anti-Semitism and classism growing up.

“He spent his white-collar work days among the Ivy-educated physicians in Boston,” Geronimus said. “Actively managing (his) social identity (by doing) what he referred to as ‘thinking Yiddish, acting British’ … my father could not be his authentic self. He was perpetually alert to the possibility of being stigmatized, discredited or humiliated if his ethnic immigrant working-class roots or city college education were exposed.” 

Because of what her father went through, Geronimus said she became interested in researching the physical and mental health impacts of chronic stress caused by systems of oppression, including racism and religious intolerance. 

“Over time, chronic exposure to everyday challenges and threats has detrimental effects on cellular systems,” Geronimus said. “Prolonged exposure to stressors weakens and dysregulates the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine and metabolic systems, damages vital tissues and organs, increases the risk of obesity, the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, (and) the early onset of diseases.” 

Throughout her career, Geronimus said she has worked to increase the diversity of doctoral students in the Health Behavior and Health Education (HBHE) department. In the 25 years that she has chaired the department’s doctoral admissions committee, she said she has watched more than 120 HBHE doctoral students graduate, with over a third of them having been historically underrepresented students. 

From her research, Geronimus said she found many of the underrepresented students with whom she worked with may have suffered from the effects of “weathering,” with chronic stress leading to serious health conditions later on in their careers.

“(The) data (is) preliminary … but I have estimated that 30% of Black or Latinx doctoral alumni have died or developed life-threatening diseases somewhere between the late 40s and early 50s,” Geronimus said. “That could reflect at least in part weathering processes … What percent of white doctoral alumni from the same cohorts have died or developed life-threatening, potentially weathering-related disease? The admittedly soft estimate I have calculated … is 1%.”

Geronimus said what she observed in her students was consistent with other academic studies, including one led by Cynthia Colen, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, in 2020. Colen’s study analyzed a nationally representative sample of adolescents and found that Black Americans who attended predominantly white institutions (PWIs) had a higher risk of developing metabolic disease by the age of 30 than Black Americans who attended historically Black colleges and universities. She urged those who work for DEI initiatives at PWIs, including the University of Michigan, to consider how these findings might impact their perception of their role in supporting diversity on campus.

“We may institutionally be contributing, however inadvertently, to the further erosion of their health, health trajectories and even life expectancy,” Geronimus said. “DEI has been institutionalized as a priority at U-M and can boast many tangible measures of success … but are we doing all we can? Important as they are, how many DEI trainings can faculty, students or staff members go to before it becomes bureaucratized and performative rather than transformative?”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily following the event, Geronimus said it was meaningful to celebrate her scholarship with her family, former students and colleagues. Especially after facing backlash early on in her career for the topics she chose to study, she said receiving the award made her feel that continuing to produce scholarship on the relationship between diversity and health care is worth the effort.

“At the beginning of my career, people did not welcome what I had to say or think,” Geronimus said. “People actively worked to censor me … The fact that I get this award now after all these years means that my perseverance was worth something.”

Engineering freshman Hyun Jun Ha attended Geronimus’ lecture and said he had heard about weathering previously but had never thought about how it might affect him personally. After coming to the event, however, Jun Ha said he thought weathering might have played a role in his family.

“I’ve lived in a lot of different countries, and I never really thought about how racism can have a physical effect,” Jun Ha said. “That’s definitely a new perspective.”

James Blackburn, an adjunct professor at the School of Social Work who attended the event, told The Daily he thought weathering provides an interesting theoretical framework to use when looking at differences in health outcomes among different racial and ethnic populations. 

“I hadn’t really thought about (the weathering hypothesis),” Blackburn said. “But it makes sense; it’s sort of a wear and tear theory of aging. Some segments of our population experience a lot more wear and tear then other segments. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.”

In an interview with The Daily, Elizabeth Cole, a professor in psychology and women’s studies, said people often think of diversity at the University in terms of socioeconomic, racial, gender and sexual demographics. But Cole said there is much more to DEI than numbers and statistics. 

“(Geronimus’) work shows if we’re not thinking about inclusion and the quality of experience once people come (to the University), we have not finished this work,” Cole said.

Daily News Contributors Nadia Taeckens and Emma Swanson can be reached at taeckens@umich.edu and emms@umich.edu.