By Minoli Ediriweera –
Have you ever thought about why racism is unhealthy? As a Sri Lankan living in the United States, I found that it was a common topic of discussion in the classroom. We spent hours learning about the Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech and studying riots caused by the civil rights movement in the early ’60s. Racism has always been a divisive issue in America, and as a minority I have experienced my fair share of it. But none of it has seemed as polarizing as the current widespread protests across the United States sparked by the Black Lives Matter Movement. It is definitely a moment that will change the course of American history forever.
The United States of America was founded on principles of equality, justice, and freedom on July 4th, 1776. However, it was also founded by white slave-owners who intentionally created a government with discriminatory laws and practices to ensure that they could continue to maintain racial superiority.
After amendments to the U.S. constitution and centuries of struggle, which included a bloody civil war and a powerful civil rights movement, the effects of the institutional racism this country was founded upon are still very apparent in modern-day America.
With the country in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic (which has led to over 100,000 deaths so far) and nation-wide protests sparked by the brutal police killing of a middle-aged black man named George Floyd, the U.S. seems to be falling apart at the seams.
And what these seams are revealing is the reality for many African-Americans in this country: poor health due to their fears of racism and poor access to healthcare to deal with these problems. In fact, it has become such a big problem that American government officials and healthcare boards are pushing for racism to be declared a public health emergency.
Cities in Minnesota and Ohio are asking for racism to be treated as a health risk, while the American Association of Family Physicians, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics reached out to the public to denounce racism and police violence in America (CNN).
The American Academy of Pediatrics even mentioned that racism has been linked to “birth disparities and mental health problems in children”. African-American children are taught self-defense behaviors to protect themselves from police brutality from a young age and have to consistently monitor how they behave in public.
They are also often subject to bullying by classmates and may not receive the same opportunities in school or at work due to discrimination. All of these things lead to increased stress hormones, which can contribute to a variety of emotional and physical illnesses such as depression, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
Coincidentally, the current coronavirus pandemic thrived on these disparities. The Guardian reported that the virus is three times as deadly for African Americans (compared to whites) and decades of systemic discrimination are to blame. Many minorities in the U.S. have struggled for generations socio-economically.
Black people are more likely to work essential jobs that offer little to no paid sick leave and expose them to more pathogens (food service, transportation, etc.). Housing segregation has led many minorities that live in low-income homes to spread the virus much more easily. They may depend more on public transportation and may live far away from essential stores or medical services. African-Americans are less likely to be covered by health insurance, and are already at risk because they tend to more at risk for having underlying conditions (such as hypertension or diabetes) than their white counterparts (CDC).
Even doctors had to make a choice, and they often chose to treat whites over blacks who needed more attention. The coronavirus didn’t just cause damage, it revealed an already-broken healthcare system that lacked the proper foundation to serve all Americans equally.
So where does that leave us? After all, the protests and the pain ask for one thing: change. But rebuilding is not enough. Old laws and systems that discriminate must be dismantled and replaced. New paid sick leave, universal healthcare, job recovery, low-cost college education must be implemented and would be a start to heal the centuries-old racial divide in the United States.
But change must first come in mentality. Teaching children to accept the differences of their peers would prevent young black children from experiencing bullying and therefore undue stress in their lives. Calling out racist behaviors from friends, family members, and even strangers to ensure the creation of a community that shows mutual respect.
Educating yourself about the struggle for civil rights or even the current struggle of your black counterparts will show them you support them, even though you have not experienced their difficulties yourself.
Voting for candidates who will work hard to create more just representation and opportunities for minorities in local, state, and federal elections is the next step.
Feeling less than human is a never-ending narrative that can have countless consequences on mental and physical well being. Living our lives how we want isn’t a gamble for most of us and it shouldn’t have to be that way for African Americans.
Those of us who have the privilege may not be able to single-handedly take down systemic racism in health care or law enforcement, but we can change a neighbor’s perspective on race to ease the anxiety-filled life of the black people in our community. The fight for the racial equality that this country has been promised for centuries is not an already-paved road, but one we will all have to carefully design and build together.
*Minoli Ediriweera is a high school writer in Maryland, USA. She is aspiring towards medical science and is a member of the 2020 Global Health Leaders Conference at Johns Hopkins University.