In more ways than you think.
Of course there are the direct and highly visible ways that we have seen recently, most notably and tragically with the killing of George Floyd, painfully evident for us to have been able to witness with our own eyes. Another wake up call to a reality that is not new.
But it also kills more nefariously. Whether due to an unfair criminal justice system, the disproportionate impact from COVID-19 or unequal access to healthcare, quality education and nutrition, or lack of opportunities. The pervasive impact of hundreds of years of inequality based on shades of skin color has been proven to impact health and life expectancy.
There is so little I can do as a white man of privilege, but I can try to listen more, understand better, protest, VOTE, and, as a scientist, share the science behind such statements of fact, attesting to the life and death impact of skin color in the United States today.
Multiple studies have shown the negative health impacts of segregation, institutional and cultural racism, and discrimination.
What does this mean?
- Studies show that while official policies of segregation no longer exist, residential areas are largely still segregated by race and that communities with higher proportions of racial minorities have lower life expectancy. The life expectancy of people of color is often a decade or more shorter than their white neighbors just a few blocks away.
- Differences in political participation, employment, education and judicial treatment by race has been shown to increase the risk of heart attack among blacks vs whites. The impact on health of chronic stress and fear is well-documented.
- Cultural racism, the impact of a widespread belief in American culture of the inferiority of values, language, and customs based on race, has been proven to exist. Research indicates that negative racial and ethnic stereotypes persist in entertainment, media, and fashion with tragic consequences. Thousands of studies attest to the impact of such stereotyping on health, leading to higher rates of mental illness and chronic disease such as high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and diabetes among racial minorities. There is also abundant literature on the impact of internalized racism, a consequence of cultural racism, on multiple health measures including substance abuse and suicide.
- Discrimination itself is a risk factor for many significant health consequences. Self-reported discrimination has been shown to be associated with most of the leading causes of early death and with less likelihood of seeking care when needed. Discrimination in housing, employment, education, and the justice system have all been linked to poor health outcomes.
There is so much more evidence that racism truly kills; these facts merely scratch the surface. I commit to you, I will continue to do my part – educating, listening, learning, and advocating for change.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH