Jennifer Roberts

Dr. Jennifer Roberts, assistant professor of Kinesiology, studies crosscutting issues including exposure and outcome and health disparities.

September 5, 2019

Dr. Jennifer Roberts, an assistant professor of kinesiology, published an op-ed in the social research magazine Contexts connecting the history of African-American experiences of danger while traveling to current high rates of African-American pedestrian deaths.

In the opinion piece, Roberts highlights a National Complete Streets Coalition report titled “Dangerous by Design” which found that from 2008 to 2017 African-American pedestrians were 50% more likely than white pedestrians to have been hit and killed by a driver.

She highlights two other studies conducted by professors from Texas A&M University and the University of Nevada which examined whether racial bias could explain the stark difference in mortality rates for African-American and white pedestrians. Both examined drivers’ actions when either a white or African-American individual tried to use a crosswalk. 

Both studies found that African-American pedestrians experience discriminatory treatment from drivers at crosswalks, like cars driving through the crosswalk while a pedestrian was attempting to cross. Such treatment translates to a greater likelihood of a fatal accident.

African-American cyclists are not immune to this trend, either. A report published last year found that African-American South Carolinians were more than 1.5 times as likely to be a victim of a bike crash than their white counterparts.

Dr. Roberts’ article, “there is no green book for walking,” contextualizes and describes this troubling African-American pedestrian mortality statistic. In the era of racist and restrictive Jim Crow Laws, African-Americans utilized the Green Book as a guide for finding travel accommodations that would accept people of color.

The Green Book was brought to the forefront of modern consciousness last year through the Oscar-winning movie "Green Book." Starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, the film followed Tony Lip (Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer in the early 1960s, who was hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American jazz pianist, on his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South using The Negro Motorist Green Book, or simply the Green Book.

While the Green Book, which was published annually from 1936 to 1966, enabled African-Americans to find safer destinations and avoid racial discrimination, there is no present equivalent for African-American pedestrians. Today African-American travelers must continue to weigh the public health benefits of walking or biking against the potential for discrimination and even fatal accidents.

As a result, less youth of color engage in “active transportation,” according to research led by Roberts. Girls and residents of low-income areas especially reported feeling like a potential target due to their race. 

Adolescents of color or those from low-income households are also more likely to be obese and less physically active than their white, wealthier counterparts. Active transportation, such as walking or riding a bike, presents an opportunity for more exercise, but that opportunity has to be weighed against the potential consequences of “Walking While Black.” 

“Even though I am an active living researcher, I make it a point to not approach my work myopically and only view the benefits of active transportation,” Dr. Roberts explained. “There are many environmental and social variables that converge on the active transportation experiences of some youth of color, thus making it a positive, negative, or in some cases, fatal (e.g., “Walking While Black”) experience.”

Dr. Roberts is the director of the Public Health Outcomes and Effects of the Built Environment Laboratory and researches active living, public health outcomes and health disparities.

Related Links

Context: There is no Green Book for Walking

Roberts: An Intersectional Analysis of Active Transportation Experiences Among Washington D.C. Area Youth

Smart Growth America Report: "Dangerous by Design"

South Carolina Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Analysis

Texas A&M Study: Racial Bias in Driver Yielding Behavior at Crosswalks

News Article on University of Nevada Research

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Jennifer D. Roberts