contributor’s note: written in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (born January 15, 1929)
We all share in benefits of the contributions of folks like Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Dr. Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. No doubt, each of us in our own way value some of what they’ve done. And in the black community, we hope to see more activists step forward to make real transformation blossom right where we live. At the same time, in order to effect transformation the first thing we have to work on is not our communities, it’s our health.
Since beginning my work at the Center I’ve heard that activists are notorious for not taking care of themselves, living on junk food diets, not sleeping, not exercising, and not taking care of their health. Combine that idea with race, with black men, specifically, and the potential for change, well, changes.
Some of the impact on health is from race discrimination alone. By itself being black in this country—not including, statistics on being a black man and living with higher potential for violence, not including poor diet and no exercise—being black on its own, produces more stress to encourage heart disease than being white. Just being.
Most folks don’t think about stress as something that they experience in their bodies, but it lands there: you hold your breath, your heart pumps harder, your cortisol levels rise. And to be on the alert every time you leave your house, or walk out of your neighborhood changes, not just how you react to the world or how you see the world, it changes your health. In fact, in study conducted by “a group of Harvard researchers documented that a mere 1% increase in incidences of racial disrespect translates to an increase in 350 deaths per 100,000 African Americans.”
From “Racism is Harmful to Your Mental Health” we learn “…that black folks are at higher risk of hypertension, but in childhood, there are no differences between black and white blood pressure rates,” says Camara P. Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, research director of Social Determinants of Health for the CDC and a leading specialist on the health impact of racism. “By the time you get into the 25-44 year-old group, you start to see changes. We have evidence that in white folks, blood pressure is dropping at night, but not in black people.”
Her theory on one reason: “There’s a kind of stress, like you’re gunning your cardiovascular engine constantly if you’re black that results from dealing with people who are underestimating you, limiting your options,” she says. “It results from little things like going to a store and if there are two people at the counter — one black and one white — the white person will be first approached. If you have stress from other sources, like a bad marriage, it’s not something you think about constantly. But the stresses associated with racism are chronic and unrelenting.”
What to do? Besides, fighting the powers that be? Exercising and eating right are the first place to begin. Simple things like walking for 20 minutes every day, eating less red meat, going to McDonald’s—a lot less and, as suggested in another article, doing something to relax your mind: meditation, tai chi, chi gong, chanting, the list goes on.
If your life is about making things better for people, for your community, for the world you’ve got to be available for that—not just part of you, all of you.
Racism’s Physical Impact
Racism is Harmful to Your Mental Health
Racism Affects African American’s Health