Racial gaps in hope, ill-being, and deaths of despair

Three protesters embrace each other during a peaceful protest against police violence organized by the San Francisco LGBT Community Center in San Francisco, California December 24, 2014. An 18-year old black teen was fatally shot by police at a gas station late on Tuesday in a St. Louis suburb near where unarmed teen Michael Brown was killed by a white officer in August. REUTERS/Stephen Lam  (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST)
Editor's note:

This is part of a video series in which Brookings experts highlight race-based disparities or discrimination in public policy. Visit Race in American Public Policy for more videos in this series and related research from Brookings experts.

Minorities in America are gradually closing the racial gaps in areas of mortality and education while fostering a unique resilience and sense of community. Despite this progress, the rise of tragic mass shootings, “deaths of despair,” and President Trump’s polarizing language present new trials. We must use this moment of division to come together and help America continue on a path toward improvement.


  • Research shows a large gap in optimism among poor communities, particularly between white and Black groups. One of my studies found that poor Black people were three times as likely to be higher up on an optimism scale than poor white people, and poor Hispanic individuals were about 1.5 times as likely as poor whites to be optimistic.
  • Poor Black people are also half as likely to report stress the previous day than poor white people. We also know, objectively, that they are more resilient to that stress.
  • Despite facing discrimination, a lower life expectancy, and higher mortality rates, minorities today have continued to make gradual progress in narrowing the gap with white Americans in areas including mortality and education.
  • The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world with a rising mortality rate. This is partly due to “deaths of despair” or the huge increase in premature deaths among less-than-college-educated, middle-aged white people.
  • Today, we see a terrible convergence of events – lack of hope, loss aversion, loss of identity and purpose, and loss of jobs among low-skilled workers.
  • Poor minorities have dealt and coped with a history of discrimination, have higher levels of resilience, and seem to have better community ties. Even in the face of tragic and horrific events ranging from kids in cages to racially-motivated mass shootings, minority communities have come together to push a positive mission countering the desperate and hateful messages coming from the president and certain parts of the media.
  • Historically, over time we’ve seen that people who are losing, who fear being taken over by others – even if it’s not the reality – do desperate and terrible things. We need to take this as a historical moment to come together and show America is more than just what mainstream stories, mass shootings, and our president’s language show.


American optimism, longevity, and the role of lost hope in deaths of despair

Why are black poor Americans more optimistic than white ones?

Unhappiness in America: Desperation in white towns, resilience and diversity in cities.

Unequal hopes and lives in the U.S.