April V. Taylor
While there are a number of studies that examine the negative impacts of racism, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health took a unique approach revealing that living in racist communities increases the mortality rate for both whites and Blacks, as well as for both the victim and the perpetrator of racism. This ironic finding was discovered by lead researcher YeonJin Lee along with Peter Muennig and Ichiro Kawachi who examined how racist individuals impact the communities they live in.
Racism has been shown to be one of the major risk factors Black people face both physically and mentally, reducing a Black person’s life expectancy more profoundly than obesity, which of course significantly increases a person’s mortality risk. Lee describes three modes of how racism impacts a person’s health which include internalized racism, interpersonal racism and structural racism. The three modes are often intertwined as they play out in day to day life.
Internalized racism decreases a person’s sense of intrinsic worth, leading to stress, depression, cynicism and hostility. Internalized racism is always a result of interpersonal racism that plays out as racial disadvantage and unfair treatment. A previous study has shown that Black people who feel they have been the victims of racism have higher rates of high blood pressure and health risk behaviors such as alcohol consumption.
While there is no known study that systematically reviews how racism impacts the health of white people in the United States, studies that reveal that it does argue that, “racial intolerance is originated from self-anxiety that whites’ social superiority might be threatened by the out-group members. Anger, such as that plausibly expressed as a form of anger or hostility against minority groups, is associated with stress hormone cortisol and hypertension which can cause various health problems of perpetrators in the long term.” It is also inferred that psychological distress, such as the self-anxiety and anger mentioned above, increases alcohol and tobacco use.
Harvard University public health and African-American studies professor David Williams, who was not involved with the study, points out, “that communities with high levels of racial prejudice may create a hostile living environment that triggers certain stress responses in the body that can negatively impact health and mortality.”
While it may be assumed that it takes significant and traumatic racist events to impact a person’s health to the point of it being fatal, Williams states that it is important to consider the fact that what may be considered little indignities, such as being the subject of fear, mistrust and disrespect, can actually add up to create enough stress to trigger a biological response to racism that, over time, can be fatal.
Racism infects communities through a myriad of ways, with prior research showing that, “negative emotional states, such as stress, hostility or cynicism can spread along the social networks overtime and impact on health status of residents in the neighborhood.” Racism is spread through the social connections people have in their communities.
To make matters worse, research shows that as racist people build intimate relationships with other racist people within the community, those who are not racist become marginalized. The effect of marginalization on the community is detrimental because of the way social capital is decreased, harming the general well-being of community residents.
Another way racism winds up negatively impacting both Black and white residents of a community is through what is referred to as “confounding,” which refers to the way individuals within a community share a similar set of experiences. An example of this would be the way racism can impact the political processes within a community and increase economic inequality and marginalization.
In terms of hard data, researchers found that people who have what was measured as a higher racist perception have lower survival rates, and that people who live in what is considered a high-racist community face a 39 percent increase in the odds of death. Oddly enough, white people who are not racist actually face an increased mortality risk when living in a community that is considered highly racist, but white people who are racist living in a highly racist community actually enjoy some level of protection against the increased mortality and other negative effects of living in a racist community.
Outside of racism’s impact on physical and mental health, institutionalized racism can serve as a catalyst for increasing crime and violence by fostering a collective anger and hostility among those who are marginalized and disenfranchised, thereby increasing the mortality rate of those living in a community where institutionalized racism is ingrained in everyday processes..
On a positive note, researchers uncovered data and patterns that show that Black people are able to alleviate a significant number of the harmful effects of racism as well as internalized racial prejudice through education.In terms of reducing the impact racist communities have on increasing mortality, researchers found that the increase in mortality was associated with reduced social capital. This means that increasing social capital through community support and policies that serve to better the lives of all community residents are ways to directly impact the way racism increases mortality.
As much as this last year has been focused on the #BlackLivesMatter movement and addressing the high numbers of Black people killed by police officers, Americans must realize that the everyday microaggressions Black people face that do not make the news are a slow death that is just as unnecessary and tragic. All Americans deserve better than to face increased mortality rates over an outplayed social construct.