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News / Mental Health

Waking Up to Injustice: The Intersection of Racism, Sleep Deprivation, and Black History

by BetterSleep
Feb 26 2024 • 8 min read

Racial disparity is an undeniable fact of African American life. Centuries of disenfranchisement and discrimination have lingering inequality that works its way into nearly every aspect of life. That includes the hours we spend asleep and dreaming. 

There is evidence that the Black community is affected by a racial “sleep gap”, with Black people? experiencing higher rates of sleep deprivation and lower sleep quality. Given the vital importance of restful sleep for mental and physical health, the consequences of this inequality may be far-reaching.

This Black History Month, we want to help readers understand how this racial sleep inequality emerged and how it might one day be overcome. This article explores the roots of the sleep gap in the historical struggles of the Black community and how it continues to affect them.

Mapping the “Sleep Gap”: The Data on Racial Sleep Disparities

The first evidence of racial differences in sleep patterns emerged in the early 2000s. The previous decade had seen a wave of studies showing that getting enough sleep was important for a broad range of different wellness measures, including:

  • Task performance
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Cardiac health
  • Immune system function
  • Weight control
  • Longevity

A group of researchers in Chicago set out to discover how prevalent sleep deprivation was among various groups of Americans. Using hard data gathered from wearable devices that could track objective metrics like heart rate and breathing patterns, they found that sleep patterns were strikingly different based on race and gender.

Sleep and Race by the Numbers

White women came the closest to getting the CDC recommendation of 7-9 hours of sleep per night. They slept an average of 7.5 hours. But the average sleep durations for Black women (5.9 hours) and Black men (5.2 hours) were substantially lower.

Further research since then has found additional troubling evidence of racial sleep disparities. Here are just a few examples:

  • A 2015 study found greater incidence of sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness among African Americans compared to other racial identities.
  • A 2016 investigation revealed that African-American participants had increased nighttime waking and fewer hours asleep compared to white participants.
  • A 2021 paper showed that Black adults get less deep, slow-wave sleep, which may be a crucial sleep phase for energy recovery, growth, injury repair, learning, and immune system function.

There’s also evidence that other ethnic groups — including Hispanics and Pacific Islanders — also experience poorer overall sleep results compared to white participants. 

Don’t Sleep: How Systemic Racism Impacts Sleep Quality

Wealth, Poverty, and Restful Sleep

Researchers first suspected the disparities might be linked to socioeconomic factors — wealth in the United States remains strongly tied to racial background, with African Americans statistically significantly more likely to face economic difficulties.

Yet, when scientists factored in the effects of poverty, it didn’t properly explain their study’s results. There were some links between socioeconomic status (SES) and restful slumber, but not enough to completely explain the racial divide in sleep health.

In fact, some studies suggested that African Americans with higher SES showed greater disruption to their sleep patterns. That’s the opposite of what socioeconomic theory would predict, and the opposite of the pattern seen in white Americans.

Racial Stress Impacts Sleep Health

Emerging research suggests that racial discrimination may have an even more direct effect on sleep patterns than previously thought. A 2017 paper found that college students who reported encountering racism more often slept worse than their peers. This connection suggested a strong difference in sleep quality related to race and race-based experiences.  

Further studies have confirmed the apparent link between experiences of discrimination and disturbed rest. This effect may occur because the body’s sleep-regulating mechanisms are so sensitive to stress. When you’re on edge throughout the day, it can be harder for your nervous system to “let its guard down” and relax into sleep.

This could partly explain why African Americans in white-majority neighborhoods and careers may be more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. They may experience more frequent exposure to overt discrimination and racial microaggressions, heightening their baseline levels of stress.

A Long History: Sleep and Racial Injustice in Black History

Being deprived of healthy sleep due to systemic racism is not a new phenomenon for the Black community. We can trace it back to the very beginning of the African-American experience, when white slave traders began to transport kidnapped African people to toil in the colonies. 

Plantation owners routinely forced enslaved people to work on far less sleep than non-enslaved laborers. Enslaved people would perform grueling tasks to the point of exhaustion, then crammed into tiny sleeping quarters in large groups, making it difficult to get sufficient rest.

To justify these inhumane practices, slaveholders concocted pseudoscientific theories proposing that Black people had fewer biological and cultural needs for sleep than whites. This phenomenon went hand-in-hand with other dehumanizing ideas meant to excuse racial injustice, such as claims that Black people had a naturally higher pain tolerance or could not control their behavior without harsh discipline. 

These false and racist notions still echo through society even today. As a result, simple daily practices like getting a good night’s sleep are negatively affected. 

Sick and Tired: The Impact of Sleep Injustice on the Black Community

The persistent problems with sleep deprivation among Black Americans may feed into the broader disparity in health outcomes between the races. Across the U.S., people of African descent have a shorter life expectancy than whites. They’re also at greater risk for a variety of serious health complications, including (among other things):

  • Cardiac disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression

One thing all of these conditions have in common: Black people are more likely to get them if they don’t get enough restful sleep. For example, sleep deprivation is known to impact metabolic health, increasing the odds of unwanted weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Lack of sleep is also linked with a greater risk for many mental illnesses, including depression.

Shedding the Burden of Sleep Injustice: Strategies For Black Wellness

Researchers, caregivers, and racial equity advocates are still working on ways to improve sleep health in the Black community. The following approaches may all have a part to play.

Improving sleep hygiene

Small changes to nighttime habits and the sleep environment can help. These include:

  • Avoiding use of phones and other blue light sources for 2-3 hours before sleep
  • Hanging thick curtains to block outside light and cut down on noise
  • Playing white noise to muffle disruptive sounds
  • Cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, especially in the afternoon and evening
  • Going to bed at the same time each night
  • Adopting a consistent bedtime routine involving soothing scents, sounds, and textures

Learning effective stress management techniques

If the stress of discrimination drives sleep deprivation, Black Americans may benefit from finding new ways to let go of emotional strain. Meditative practice, such as mindfulness meditation (like our Roots of Unity Meditation by Dr. Ryan C. Warner on the BetterSleep app), compassion meditation, and centering prayer, have demonstrated stress-relieving potential in trials. Getting regular exercise and spending time in natural settings can also help.

Another potentially useful practice is self-affirmation. This encompasses a variety of techniques intended to ground your sense of identity in the things that matter most.

Research suggests that self-affirmation can reduce many of the negative mental effects of racism. You can start putting this into practice by taking some time each day to reflect on how you’re living out your personal values, such as caring for your family, serving your community, or honoring your spiritual beliefs. 

Seeking treatment for sleep disorders

Part of the reason for the racial divide in sleep health may be a lack of awareness within the Black community of sleep disorders. Some leading voices are working to change that, such as Dr. Girardin Jean-Louis, a Haitian-born researcher who organizes sleep education efforts within Black neighborhoods and social networks. However, more work is still needed to ensure that those who need treatment get it.

If you suffer from difficulties like daytime sleepiness, you may want to talk to a doctor about ways to improve your sleep health.

Advocating for racial equality

We will need more than individual solutions to tackle the sleep problems plaguing the Black community because these are deeply linked to systemic racism. Americans of every background need to speak out for structural changes, such as:

  • Equal pay, job conditions, and benefits for black workers
  • An end to the housing discrimination that forces minorities into noisy, crowded, unsafe neighborhoods
  • Equitable access to educational opportunities

Until people of all races are truly treated as equals in American society, those working to end racial sleep injustice will be fighting an uphill battle.

Conclusion: Honoring the Past, Fighting for the Future

A history of systemic inequality, beginning in the days of slavery and persisting to the present, has made it impossible for many Black Americans to truly rest easy. But the story doesn’t have to end there. This Black History Month, readers may want to look into how they can support efforts to increase minority access to education, healthcare, and equal rights in their own communities.

Learning more about Black history may also help you understand what you can do in your own everyday life to relieve the stress of racism. Developing greater awareness and empathy can be an important part of healing the racial divide. 

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