What exactly are people hoping to find when they type the word "nigger" into Google? That's unclear.
But what is clear, from a new study, is that there's a relationship between how often people do this search in certain places in America and how often black people die in those places.
The University of Maryland's David H. Chae and a team of researchers concluded in a paper published this month by PLOS One that comparing "n-word searches" (a proxy for racism) with mortality rates adds to the fast-growing pile of evidence that bigotry and prejudice hurt more than just feelings.
How they did the research
First, the researchers measured the proportion of Google searches containing the n-word in different "designated market areas" (regions of the country that receive similar media programming).
Taking note of the fact that "nigga" generally means something different, they didn't include that variation on the word.
They called this figure "area racism."
On this map, the red areas represent places where "area racism" as measured by Google searches for the n-word was highest (more than half a standard deviation about the mean), and the green areas are where it was the lowest.
Next, researchers took their measurements of area racism for each media market and compared them with the mortality rates of black people from 2004 to 2009, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, for the same areas.
The result: a strong association between an area's level of racism and mortality of African Americans. The areas that ranked high on racism, with scores one standard deviation about the country's average, had an 8 percent increase in mortality rates. "This effect estimate amounts to over 30,000 deaths among Blacks annually nationwide," Chae said in a press release about the study.
After they controlled for other factors, like education and wealth, the association was not as strong, but it still remained, especially with deaths caused by cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Researchers also controlled for white mortality rates. "By doing this, we are showing that it [area racism] is not only associated with the Black mortality rate, but also the excess Black mortality rate relative to Whites," Chae explained.
Connections between the impact of racism and health are nothing new
In their writeup of the study, the authors discuss the ways in which previous research has established that the ongoing legacy of racism and racial discrimination is linked to disparities in access to health care, healthy food, exercise, and housing.
"Discrimination is more insidious today. Racism in major societal domains, such as in housing, employment, and criminal justice contexts, continues despite the existence of protective legislation," Chae said.
They study's authors also cite previous research concluding that the stress, and anxiety that result from perceiving discrimination on a personal level can lead to premature deterioration or "wear and tear" on the body that directly impacts health — with measurable biochemical reactions that are thought to accelerate aging at the cellular level.
So this newly discovered connection between an area's racism — as measured by Google searches — and how often black people die shouldn't be surprising.
"These findings are congruent with studies documenting the deleterious impact of racism on health among Blacks. Our study contributes to evidence that racism shapes patterns in mortality and generates racial disparities in health," Chae said.
Can Google searches really measure racism?
The authors argue that they can. In fact, they say examining internet searches does a better job of capturing socially unacceptable attitudes and actions than self-reporting.
"An Internet search-based measure of area racism may serve as a more direct indicator of racial attitudes and the extent of discrimination and prejudice towards Blacks in a geographic area, including those experiences of racially motivated bias that are subtle or not observable, and which are not necessarily reported in survey instrument," they wrote. They also pointed out that previous studies have found that searches related to particular subjects, like religiosity and firearms, do in fact reflect sociodemographic characteristics of the underlying population.
While they acknowledged that the measure isn't perfect — a journalist or student doing research, for example, might search for the n-word in a way that was unrelated to their own views on race — they argued that in most cases, looking at the rates of these queries would tell us something about racial attitudes in an area.
It turns out that this tactic for measuring "area racism" measure has been used in studies before. For example, Internet search queries containing the n-word were strongly associated with the rates at which voters in particular places who voted for (white) Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004 did not vote for (black) candidate Barack Obama in 2008 — providing evidence that people who chalked up the discrepancy to racism may have been on to something.
So what does this actually tell us?
The study authors were careful to clarify that they could not conclude that an area's racism directly caused the deaths of black people — just that the two things they measured were strongly associated.
But what Chae did feel comfortable concluding, given his research in the context of established knowledge, is that "racism is a social toxin that increases susceptibility to disease and generates racial disparities in health."
You can read the entire paper here.