Health Effects of Racism Not Going Away

As I wrote here awhile back, the effects of racism on health are not insignificant. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Daily Reports put me on to this story from the Portland (ME) Press Herald. Leigh Donaldson sets this medical news story in eloquent relief with his opening:

During my high school years, I helped my father maintain his residential rental properties in Detroit.

This meant low wages and hard work. It’s not always easy working for a parent, especially for my father, who raised the work-ethic bar on a daily basis.

He expected the best effort with minimal complaint, short of a near-death experience.

One day, I was mowing the lawn surrounding one of his buildings when he yelled from a tenant’s apartment window for me to bring up his toolbox from the car.

Entering the living room, I overheard the tenant, a gray-haired white woman, refer to my father this way: “You know how they are. God knows how long it will take. I doubt if he even knows what he’s doing.”

My father must have overheard as well, yet he continued to work. The tenant, who was behind on her rent, asked him if he knew the landlord.

My father said: “I should, I’m him. I own the building.” The woman’s mouth dropped.

Since that day, he has never mentioned the incident, and I often wonder just how he felt and if he was hurt by these less-than-subtle insults.

What did members of the Rutgers University women’s college basketball team internalize after listening to radio talk show host Don Imus’ racial slurs?

There has been a quickly emerging field of research that demonstrates that racism hurts the health of the body. According to Madeline Drexler, a medical columnist and visiting lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, more than 100 studies now document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health.

Toward the end of the piece Donaldson goes on to note that:

Too many Americans are reluctant to deal with racism on any level. Exploring it scientifically has met resistance from funding sources.

He’s partly right here. It’s true that (white) Americans are reluctant to deal with racism on any level. And, exploring racism scientifically isn’t just met with resistance from funding sources, it’s that scientists are asking the wrong questions. Instead of exploring the science of racism funding is allocated to study racial differences. So, for example, instead of asking questions about what the physical impact on the body is from racism for those who are targets of it – or perpetrators of it – funding goes to study racial differences between Black and white behavior and biology. Asking research questions framed exclusively in terms of behavioral and biological racial differences without looking at racism simply reinscribes racial hierarchies rather than producing knowledge that might disrupt them.