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African Americans have carried the burden of racism ever since we got here in 1619, and we are tired. These generational stresses lead to distrust in the institutions that are supposed to protect us. How is the generational weight of racism taking a toll on our bodies? The research makes it clear. Racism is the cause of the decline of health in the African American community.
African Americans have higher levels of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions compared to White Americans. Most recently, with the onset of COVID-19, we are dying 3x the rate of white Americans, yet we only make up about 13% of the population. Because there is no biological difference between race, we have to look at how our body is reacting to the environment around us.
Here are 5 ways racism is taking a toll on our bodies.
Telomeres affect how our cells age. They are found at the end of our DNA and act as a cap to keep the strands together. Think of them like a shoelace, and when the cap comes off, the lace becomes frayed. Once this happens, they can no longer do an adequate job. As a consequence, the shortening of telomeres impacts our DNA. Shortened telomeres, opens us up to age-associated health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As we get older, our telomeres naturally shorten, but there is a factor that speeds the aging process. Stress.
Racism is a weekly, if not daily, stress African Americans feel, and it’s not getting easier. A study looked at this factor and found that chronic racism triggered the stress signaling genes that age the body and damage the organs. The constant stress will shorten the telomeres speeding up the aging process.
Racism increases the body’s inflammatory response. One study concluded that the genes that are the catalyst for inflammation are turned on more in blacks than whites. This chronic inflammation triggers diseases that affect African Americans at a higher rate because of the stress we face from racial discrimination. The stress of racism turns on the inflammatory processes that lead to chronic disease. The study found that the difference in race discrimination between blacks and whites contributed to a 50% increase in the stress response that promotes pro-inflammatory genes.
Genes and Immunity
Genes can turn on and off responses based on our environment. The stress of racism causes genes to turn on and off in an unusual way. Specifically, the genes associated with immunity and how our body responds to pathogens can be altered under adverse conditions. Something like getting pulled over, being denied housing, and seeing black people die at the hands of police officers daily causes the body’s fight or flight response to trigger constantly. This suppresses our immune response. Due to the stress, the reactionary events of gene responses are abnormally altered, and it produces poor health outcomes. Our weakened immunity under daily discriminatory stressors could be why we are dying from viruses like COVID-19 at a high rate.
‘It is vital that we better understand what role race plays in health care outcomes and how far racism and social justice issues impact healthcare. But, if we are going to achieve this, then we as a society must collect the right data’.
— Race & Health (@raceandhealth) May 29, 2020
Black people continue to die at higher rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, and other potentially terminal diseases than white people. It is widely noted that the unconscious bias of Physicians leads to a lower quality of health care. One study found that physicians with black patients perceived them as less intelligent, less educated, more likely to abuse drugs, and more likely to be noncompliant in care compared to their white patients. This is problematic because it contributes to the higher death rates we see in diseases like breast cancer. Doctors are not listening to us because they don’t believe us. In that same study, black women with breast cancer reported that their doctor had not recommended a mammogram leading to a late cancer diagnosis.
Other research points out that at every opportunity for diagnosis and treatment of all possible conditions, the individual unconscious bias of doctors leads to African Americans receiving a lower quality of care and procedural treatment intervention opportunities. This lack of procedural recommendation is putting us at risk when we experience potentially deadly symptoms. The unspoken bias and poor communication between African Americans and their health care providers directly affect our chances of recovery.
Child and Adolescent Health
The American Academy of Pediatrics has officially recognized racism as a problem and social determinant of children and adolescent health. They state, “The impact of racism has been linked to birth disparities and mental health problems in children and adolescents.” They back the notion repeated throughout this topic. The prolonged exposure to stress is raising cortisol (a hormone released under stress) and puts these children at risk for chronic conditions. Another important point is the racial disparities of infant mortality and low birth rates amongst African Americans hold steady. These issues are directly related to the structural, institutional, and economic perceived racial discrimination and maternal stress.
The policy laid out by The American Academy of Pediatrics is a lengthy article and goes into deep depth on the effect of racism on child and adolescent health. Some key points for further reading include childhood experiences of racism and education racism. All of these contribute to the health of young African Americans and their growth and development. The main underlying take away is, the impact of racism in our childhoods leaves a lasting imprint. Think of how you view the world around you. What in your childhood has shaped why you think or behave?
Where do we go from here?
This is just a small portion of the lengthy examples of how racial discrimination is affecting African American physical health. What do we do from here? As African Americans racism is something beyond our control; how someone reacts to our skin color is not our fault. Instead, let us think about the things we can do within our control to reduce our daily stress. Whether it comes from meditation, exercise, or eating healthy we can counteract the environmental stressors we regularly feel to support our health.
Suggested resources for further reading and support
- The American Academy of Pediatrics- The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health
- Black Lives Matter
- Racism and Health- American Public Health Association
- Race and Health. Org
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Therapy for Black Men