Does Racism Make Black People Sick?

April 11, 2011  |  

Most black folks are aware of the negative effects racism can have on one’s life. Systematic racial discrimination can, among other things, determine which job opportunities are offered to you, which neighborhood you can live in, and even the how often police will stop you. But now new emerging research suggest that racial discrimination has dangerous health side effects.

According to research from Penn State University, chronic exposure to racial discrimination is comparable to the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield. Just as soldiers experience debilitating stress when they return home, so do African-Americans when they face racism, causing what researchers have termed race-based battle fatigue.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, surveyed nearly 6,000 African-Americans for the study. The findings suggest that more than 40 percent of American blacks have experienced some form of racial discrimination. Therefore, approximately 4.5 percent of blacks suffer from general anxiety disorder, or GAD.

The idea of an anxiety disorder related to race is not new. A previous study concluded that fifth-graders, who felt they were being mistreated because of their skin color, would have a greater chance of developing mental disorders. A group of Harvard researchers documented that a mere 1 percent increase in incidences of racial disrespect translates to an increase in 350 deaths per 100,000 African Americans.

The term race-based battle fatigue was actually coined by University of Utah professor, William A. Smith, to describe the stress and angst caused by constantly dealing with both overtly racist actions and subtle references to one’s race. While blacks have long suspected that racial stereotypes and negative images are denigrating to an individuals’ self-worth, this research, among others, has finally drawn a correlation between these persistent stressors and overall mental health.

Anxiety disorders have psychological and physical symptoms that are so severe that they can significantly impact everyday tasks and job performance. People with the disorder may have chronic worrying, intrusive thoughts and difficulty concentrating. Physical symptoms may manifest into tension headaches, extreme fatigue and ulcers.

Compare that with the feelings you get when thinking about a time in your life when you were stereotyped and marginalized based on your race. Remember how spiritually draining it was not to retaliate in the same visceral vein as the offender or offending institution? You probably can’t describe the story without a feeling of frustration, shock, anger, disappointment, resentment, anxiety, helplessness, and/or fear.

Black folks and other marginalized minorities have developed many ways to cope, deal and/or adapt to racial discrimination.  Some of us fight while others seek to ignore or transfer our anger onto others. But, there are some of us who are unable to cope. Take for instance Omar Thornton, a black beer delivery guy who shot at five white folks at the Hartford Distributors, his place of employment. His family has long asserted that Thornton was never a violent person; however, when faced with a steady stream of prejudice and intolerance, he was pushed to his breaking point.

Unfortunately, the only true solution to race-based battle fatigue or race-based anxiety disorder comes from the full representation of minority groups at all levels of society. Until then, blacks in this country will continue to be mentally and emotionally assaulted as a result of racial discrimination.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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