March 18, 2010

FORUMEffects of racism show up in poorer health of its victims

— 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.

According to Drexler, research has suggested that racism acts a classic stressor in the same physiological ways as job strain and marital conflict; elevating heart rates, increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and suppressing immunity.

In the 1990s, the Harvard School of Public Health's social epidemiologist, Nancy Krieger, confirmed that ''race-based discriminatory experiences were associated with higher blood pressure'' and that ''not talking to others about the experience or not taking action against the inequity, raised blood pressure even more.''

The timing of these kinds of studies is noteworthy, as lawmakers and government officials begin to focus more on the racial disparities in the quality of American health care. Despite social and economic growth, people of color are still dying at a higher rate from heart disease, diabetes, stroke and hypertension.

On average, affluent blacks have more health issues than the poorest whites.

These studies are not without their critics, who charge that they are flawed because there is no way to objectively measure ''racial discrimination.''

I beg to differ. Hook any person of color up to a blood pressure monitor just after being called a slur by a white person and you'll see what I mean.

Studies of African-Americans' heart rates in a controlled laboratory environment where they are exposed to film footage of a racist encounter bear this out.

The problem with some is that they chose to believe that these studies are preliminary and/or too controversial, and that they have the potential of profoundly altering the way we look at the links between racism and health.

Many whites and some blacks aren't comfortable recognizing that racial bigotry is more than just a personal psychic flaw.

Some researchers claim they can't share a comprehensive definition of racial discrimination because of its innate complexity. Others insist that people's accounts of discrimination can't be fully trusted because they are often subjective in nature, and thus they can't always be sure of the perpetrators' motives.

I contend that most people of color know racism when they see, hear or feel it. They very seldom make it up in their heads.

Further, past studies of depression, anger and post-traumatic stress disorder have usually been based on the patient's subjective perceptions and not so-called verifiable facts.

Unveiling racism as a health problem is to admit that they are legitimate sources of internal suffering not to be taken lightly. Like other social ills, racism can set off a wide range of bad effects, including over-eating, smoking, alcoholism and depression.

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

Is this because institutions are afraid to take on this potentially polarizing issue? Or perhaps they are afraid that once they see the results, they feel they won't be capable of doing something productive about them?

The health effects of racism are not going away. What we need is clear-headed talk and research on the subject.

Perhaps that will create an open mind and heart about one of the most taboo topics in American culture.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer. He can be contacted at:

leighd@lycos.com

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