When my editor asked me to write something for this paper, I jumped at the chance to write about health in the age of “Black Lives Matter.” It was timely —right after the Baltimore protests, which were right after Charleston police shot Walter Scott in the back. But I couldn’t do it immediately and asked for time to clear my plate. “Black lives and black health will still matter,” I said. And somehow I knew there’d be another incident that would provide a news hook.
Sadly, I was right. Since that time, an unarmed black girl was thrown to the ground and sat on by a gun-brandishing police officer at a pool party in Texas. Then nine people were gunned down at their prayer meeting at a black church in Charleston.
Black lives continue to be threatened and lost.
To say that excessive force by police is a health issue for black people is to state the obvious. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and that Cleveland couple shot at 137 times are dead as a result of police action. Then there are those who have died at the hands of random citizens — Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin and the nine people at the Mother Emmanuel prayer service. When public-health experts talk abut what increases mortality rates for African Americans, they have to acknowledge this: Being black can be fatal.
And it’s not just the brothers (and sisters) catching bullets who are dying. People who are witness to and live in fear of racial assaults are facing slower, less-obvious deaths.
Health experts know that feelings of anxiety, anger and grief in response to physical or emotional violence — experienced or witnessed — release stress hormones in the body. They know that eventually stress begins to take a toll on a person’s mental and physical health. Now, they are beginning to see the link between poor health and the racialized violence that is specific to and pervasive in black communities. Case in point: A study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Public Health found a connection between racism in a given community and incidences of heart disease, cancer and stroke in that community’s black population.
Research confirms that steady streams of stress can contribute to arthritis, diabetes and a host of other health problems. More significantly, the heart, the immune system and reproductive system are all compromised by unabated stress. And being black in America is stressful — has been for 400 years. Sociologists like Monnica Williams and Joy DeGuy say that experiencing racial stress and trauma — personally and vicariously, repeatedly over time — results in a form of post-traumatic stress.
“Is it plausible that [African Americans] escaped stress-related illness?” DeGruy asks in a video circulating on social media. “Not plausible.”
So, how do we fix a community that is literally sick and tired?
Black Americans continue to rely on a history of resilience; we’ve survived worse and we shall overcome. We turn to our spirituality to salve emotional wounds. We turn inward for support from our communities. But others are taking proactive as well as self-protective measures. Public health experts like Elon University’s Stephanie Baker-White are looking at how “community activism can be an effective strategy to promote health and wellness.” Civic activity may help people channel their stress and frustration out of their bodies and into action.
“If you look at it from a public-health perspective, it becomes a community problem: less about the violence and more about the root causes,” Baker-White says. “The bigger challenge is figuring out how to address those root causes.”
The roots of black health disparities are a complex tangle — and not just a black issue for black people to resolve. It involves addressing and ultimately dismantling the undercurrent of racism that pervades the economic, political, social and even religious systems that this country is built on. It means acknowledging that, however fervently we may wish to live in a post-racial world, we do not. Race still seeps into how people of color are portrayed in the media, how we are treated in the streets, how we are seen by the people who are sworn to serve and protect, heal and help. And all of that has an impact on black health. It’s a larger conversation — one that invites and involves us all. But we need to talk — fast and deep. Because black people are dying.
Tamara Jeffries (@tamjeffries) is a writer, editor and assistant professor of journalism at Bennett College in Greensboro.