The Damaging Health Effects of Being Racially Discriminated Against


“Driving while black” is a real thing, and Sergeant First-Class Rossano V. Gerald knows all about it. Despite being a veteran of two campaigns overseas, Gerald, at the time 37-years-old, was repeatedly harassed by Highway Patrol while driving through the state of Oklahoma.

Not only did the multiple traffic stops eat up over three hours of this man’s time, but Gerald’s 12-year-old son, who was accompanying him on the road trip, was threatened by a police dog and left in a closed car with no air conditioning. Essentially a pressure cooker on a hot Oklahoma day.

The officers involved shut of their surveillance cameras — they knew what they were doing was racially charged and completely inappropriate.

35 Years After Civil Rights, We’ve Got a Long Way to Go

SFC Gerald’s case is not a one-off. This type of thing happens frequently. Worse yet, young black men are killed by police at a disproportionately high rate, according to a study by The Washington Post.

What is being done before we arrive at a situation where someone might get shot? How are the pressures of bigotry affecting blacks and other minorities in everyday life?

Being a Minority Is Inherently Stressful

Had SFC Gerald been white, would those traffic stops have gone differently? We can’t say whether he would or would not have been stopped, entirely on the grounds of race, but the interaction with police would not have been the same. Blacks and other minorities face a dilemma about how to act when pulled over. Failing to stand up for oneself could result in unfair punishment, but being perceived as “difficult” could land you in even more trouble.

The effect is illustrated perfectly when we examine the statistics around stress-related health conditions and how they manifest in minority communities. The rate of stroke in African Americans is double that of whites. Adult-onset diabetes is expressed at a similar rate in blacks and is more than doubled in persons of Native American descent.

You might argue there are other factors — hereditary ones, even — that contribute to these conditions. In some cases that’s correct, but the delta between conditions expressed in whites and persons of minority ethnic backgrounds is more significant than it should be, based on genomics. Experts believe this can be attributed to the lower standard of living that many minorities are subject to living in a system that knowingly and unknowingly disenfranchises them.

The Physiological Effects of Racism

Even before a racially influenced interaction, our bodies respond differently to the world around us. A study by Kathryn Freeman Anderson in the journal Sociological Inquiry shows that stress levels for blacks can be five times higher or more while performing routine activities. This has a multitude of adverse effects on health.

First, a person who is stressed is more inclined to make impulsive decisions. That might mean indulging in alcohol or drugs. Do you see the correlation between abusive behavior in minority communities?

At a more primitive level, the body engages natural defense mechanisms when stressed. These hormones and neurotransmitters trigger a state of heightened alert associated with our fight-or-flight response, but the human body isn’t well-equipped to remain in this state all the time.

Heightened levels of stress increase heart rate, affect blood flow, change your breathing patterns and keep you from sleeping. If you’re a white person, can you imagine for a moment, going through life experiencing these types of effects five times more often than you do typically?

Now, add additional stressors to that equation. Maybe you have a new child, have trouble paying rent or, to bring the conversation full-circle, you’ve been pulled over by the police. You can see how the cycle of stress becomes self-fulfilling. It’s not healthy.

Each time another incident like Fruitvale station, Charlottesville or even President Trump’s assault on the DACA act — which grants opportunity to immigrants of minority backgrounds — takes place, another multiplier is added to the cycle. If you need a way to identify with minorities, maybe think of it that way.

Kate Harveston is a political writer with an interest in social justice and progressive change. She has a background in journalism and Criminal Justice, so she enjoys anything related to law, politics, culture and the written word. In her spare time, her favorite activity is reading dystopian fiction. If you like her work, you can subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased, or follow her on Twitter for updates!


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