Racism is not only evil and plain butt-ugly, it’s also bad for your health. I once taught a writing class to black adult education students on the West Side of Chicago. Many of the women wrote essays about horrible racist experiences in hospitals & clinics endured by themselves and their families. With a few more writing workshops, they could have put Stephen King out of the horror story business. And their horror stories were true stories. Look up the term “Mississippi Appendectomy” sometime.
The unhealthy effects of racism are well documented. The National Academy of Sciences has a 781 page report entitled Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care. If you enjoy especially depressing scientific studies you can download the whole thing as an e-book if you Google the title. A sample is below:
Relative to whites, African Americans—and in some cases, Hispanics—are less likely to receive appropriate cardiac medication or to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery, are less likely to receive peritoneal dialysis and kidney transplantation, and are likely to receive a lower quality of basic clinical services, even when variations in such factors as insurance status, income, age, co-morbid conditions, and symptom expression are taken into account. Significantly, these differences are associated with greater mortality among African-American patients.
In short, racism kills and it doesn’t take a lynch mob to do it. If you have enough melanin in your system, just checking into some of our local hospitals can be a racially motivated end-of-life experience.
But it’s not only the disparities in the actual health care delivery system that can kill or injure a person of color, although those are real enough. Racism can kill in other ways, some of them quite insidious. When humans face a threat, our bodies produce a flood of “fight or flight” hormones which are critical to confronting immediate dangers. It’s nature’s little home grown pharmacy to the rescue.Try jumping out of the way of a speeding car if you are not juiced up on these hormones. The results will likely be painful, expensive and quite possibly fatal.
Human bodies are supposed to stop producing these hormones when things go back to normal again. But if “normal” is a a chronic constant potential threat? Our racial caste system is such a threat because it so embedded in our culture. Were you denied that promotion because they honestly didn’t think you could do the job? Or was it because of your race? Do co-workers treat you like a carrier of the bubonic plague because they don’t like your personality? Or is it because of your race? Did that cop beat you up because they mistook you for a criminal? Or was it because of your race? Were those ugly racial slurs shouted at you just some drunk kids mouthing off? Or were those knuckleheads thinking about a violent physical attack to go with the verbal assault? I’m sure readers of this essay could easily expand this shortlist into a book length saga.
Living within our racial caste system is like an obnoxious car alarm in your life that never turns off. Sometimes it’s louder and sometimes its quieter, but that infernal maddening noise never quits. Researchers like Sherman James, Arline Geronimus and Bruce McEwen have studied how the stress created by racism results in a high level of stress hormones being released to the body. In short bursts these can save our lives. As constant companions, they are a slow acting poison.
The build up of excessive hormones was labeled “allostatic load” by Rockefeller University’s Bruce McEwen. Allostatsic load is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and accelerated aging. There is also strong evidence that social and environmental stressors cause premature aging at the cellular level itself. Preliminary research suggests that these stressors play havoc with the telomeres at the end of the DNA double helix. The forced degeneration of these telomeres weakens the immune system, causing premature aging and probably cancer as well.
Research into these critical areas has been hampered by the racial caste system within science itself. Scientists researching the health effects of racism have been denied adequate funding and when they are funded, their research has often been met with hostility and threats to their careers. Real world science is very political and not everyone who controls the purse strings of hiring, publication and research is interested in free and open inquiry. In the case of Arline Geronimus, who has been working in this field since 1976, her initial findings were met with actual death threats.
The noxious health effects of racism on people of color is a fact, although there is much to be learned about the details. But what about the white people who live in this racial caste system? How the culture of white supremacy affects the health of white people has received far less attention. Are there unhealthy stressors involved in upholding an irrational system of racial fear and violence?
Revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon did some preliminary research into this when he treated French police torturers during the Algerian War of Independence.There was of course a strong racial component to the French-Algerian war. Apparently the stress of administering beatings, water tortures and electric shock can induce a shocking decline in the mental health of the perpetrators. Fanon’s police patients were psychological basket cases, which could not have been good for their overall physical health. How much of this had a direct racial component is unclear from Fanon’s notes, but it’s hard to imagine otherwise given the situation.
Although his research used the most extreme examples, I think Fanon was on to something. The culture of white supremacy does affect the mental health of white people, though to varying degrees depending upon the individual. Horace Seldon wrote about this and explained that racism can create a reality distortion field around whites, filling their world view with blinding delusions. According to Seldon,”Racism has produced in white society a mental health problem: characteristic responses among many whites are dominated by unfounded fear of blacks, hatred, suspicion, guilt, shame, and jealousy. These words are the language of disease.”
There’s a lot of racial hatred in the heads of millions of white people. How has this chronic anger and confusion affected their physical health? I wish knew. One would also have to factor in class, regional variations, gender and all kinds of variables to know. I am aware no scientific research into this area. Readers are urged to chime in with comments if you know of any.
But what is obvious is that culture of white supremacy does seriously cloud judgement. When Richard Nixon set a course of naked racism for the Republican Party with his so-called “Southern Strategy”, he found millions of supporters among low and middle income whites who had never considered voting Republican before.
The Southern Strategy(itself an insult to the many Southern anti-racists), further splintered the diverse US working class. This opened the way for the corporate attacks on working class living standards that have continued unabated ever since. These attacks could not have succeeded without the support of millions of dazed everyday white people who supported the policies of such toxic politicians as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and more recently, Sarah Palin.
This appalling lack of judgement was apparent during the battle over health care in 2009. Outraged white Tea Party supporters aligned themselves with the financial elite of the health care industry at a time when millions of Americans were being denied health insurance. Part of this was a racist reaction to the election of Barack Obama, a moderately conservative Democrat who would have been quite comfortable in the pre-Nixonian Republican Party. Another part was their general hatred and fear of people of color whom they claim are just lazy drones who live off the government and drop babies where they are not wanted.
Creating a rational universal health care system beneficial to all Americans would have required close cooperation along racial lines. This was beyond the racially warped and constricted imaginations of the Tea Party types and their sympathizers. Ironically, many of these people were themselves enrolled in public health care programs that could have been models for the entire US population. Go figure.
Their surrender to the worst manifestations of racism paved the way for the disastrous 2010 election and the present corporate assaults on Medicare, Medicaid, veterans heath care, child health & public health programs of all types. Although crippling these programs would be most harmful to people of color, they wouldn’t be healthy for a lot of white people either.
Ironically, most Tea Party supporters now oppose cuts in Medicaid and Medicare. So here’s some straight talk to a whole lot of white folks who probably don’t want to hear it. When you strike a deal with the devil, the devil always gets his due. Where are your friends in high places now? I’ll tell you exactly where they are. They are sitting in glittering office towers laughing at your delusions of “white superiority”. Nobody likes to admit being conned. But if you value the health of you and your family, its time to swallow your false pride and see reality with clear eyes.
Racism is a hazard to the health of Americans everywhere. We need more rigorous scientific research into the epidemology of racism. We need better treatments to eradicate this deadly plague. And we’re going to need all hands on deck to meet that challenge.