Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University social work professor Julius Harrington published a new conceptual model that sheds light on low birth weight in African American babies.
Harrington was the lead author of the scholarly article, “The Relationship between Race-Based Self-Talk among African American Women and Poor Birth Outcomes,” in the International Journal of Childbirth Education.
Extensive data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other sources shows that babies of African American women rank the highest for low birth weight in every state in the country.
Low birth weight is defined as less than 5 ½ pounds and can lead to a host of developmental and medical problems. The NIH had identified low birth weight and preterm delivery as a major health challenge in the United States.
“African American pregnant women face distinct sociological challenges such as poverty, underemployment and inadequate housing,” Harrington said. “Yet the low birth weight statistics are the same across all socioeconomic and education levels of black women.
“We think that pregnant black women’s exposure to racism is detrimental to their unborn fetus, resulting in low birth weight. Self-talk — what people say to themself — can play an important role in the regulation of emotions, stress and behavior. Self-talk during a negative race-based event can generate negative emotions and stress for pregnant black women,” Harrington said.
Harrington gives the example of a pregnant black women who is shopping in an upscale store and is followed by clerks or security guards.
“She might be saying to herself, â€˜They’re watching me and I’m not going to steal anything.’ This can generate anxiety, anger and frustration that she communicates to her unborn baby. This unhealthy internalized stress becomes part of the baby’s environment,” Harrington said.
In 2008, Harrington watched an acclaimed PBS documentary series titled Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick? One film about low birth weight for black babies — When the Bough Breaks — sparked his interest in further exploring the topic.
Harrington said the literature shows that the roles of racial and ethnic disparities in preterm birth rates and low birth weight remain poorly understood. He believes racism plays a role.
“I define racism as the predication of decisions and policies on consideration of race with the purpose of controlling or subordinating a racial group. Racism targeted at African Americans can include aggressive and passive acts of discrimination, prejudice and intolerance,” said Harrington, who is African American and grew up in Mississippi.
Harrington collaborated with colleagues at Tulane University and Middle Tennessee State University on the article. One colleague developed a scale for measuring self-talk and Harrington is developing a curriculum aimed at teaching pregnant black women how to talk to their unborn babies so they don’t share painful, racist comments.
Harrington and his colleagues are pursuing grants that would fund a research study to test their conceptual model with pregnant African American women.
Harrington joined the Highlands School of Social Work faculty in 1993 and teaches at the university’s Albuquerque Center. He earned his doctorate in social work from the University of Utah.
He teaches both undergraduate and graduate social work courses in social work policy, as well as courses such as social work practice with diverse populations.
“What we want to teach social work students is how to help make pregnant African American women aware of their self-talk, and how detrimental it can be to their fetus when it’s negative and race related. Ultimately, we want to help teach black mothers how to self-talk in positive ways that don’t harm their unborn babies,” Harrington said.
Harrington is a frequent speaker at social work conferences and is a leader in professional organizations, including his current position as vice president for the National Association of Social Workers New Mexico Chapter.