Gratified to see this ongoing coverage that we will be covering through our upcoming speaker’s series we are calling “Community Grand Rounds”. This work refers to the human body’s “normal” stress responses to “racism” which is defined here in this article in the broadest sense (as well as to other “isms” and “phobias”) and the consequent health impacts of the resulting social exclusion & isolation. Watch this space!
Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, a black Brookline, Mass., police officer, pulled up in an unmarked car and greeted his superior, a white lieutenant. He wasn’t prepared for the response by the lieutenant, who said, as he gestured at the vehicle, “Who would put a black man behind one of these?”
“I was shocked,” the officer later told a Boston news station about the experience. It was one of several derogatory racial comments he would hear on the job. It got so bad that he and a black colleague walked away from the force in 2015.
The statements they’d heard were offensive and at times threatening in the moment, but they also made the men fear for their safety at work in a broader sense: The black officers weren’t sure that the white colleagues who were so willing to antagonize them would back them up if they were attacked on patrol.
Even if Mr. Zerai-Misgun and his colleague were never directly physically harmed, the experience probably took a toll on their bodies. Perceptions of discrimination like those the officers experienced, as well as those that are less direct, may make us sick. And in the current political environment, with its high-profile expressions of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and xenophobia, along with widely covered acts of hate and bigotry, countless Americans are at risk of this type of harm.
Take Mr. Zerai-Misgun as an example. Chances are, in reaction to each instance of perceived discrimination, he had a stress response. His blood pressure increased, his heart rate went up, and his brain sent a signal to release cortisol. We know this because in 2008, researchers studied the effects of discrimination on blood pressure. Black and Latino study participants recorded their interactions with perceived racism and were outfitted with blood pressure monitors. The results were striking. While blood pressure normally dips at night, those who said they’d experienced racism were more likely to have blood pressure that did not — and this has been strongly linked to increased mortality. Over time, this high blood pressure hardens our arteries, increasing the risk of a clot forming in our hearts or brains.