Response to Opinions

Stress was already killing black Americans. Covid-19 is making it worse.  

By David R. Williams, May 14, 2020

Covid-19 stole our breath for a season, systemic racism has stolen our breath for generations

Reading Dr. David Williams’ recent opinion piece, I found myself nodding. My original plan was to respond and reflect on how true his words were to the community where I live and serve in Southwest Michigan. 

Yet, as I prepared to write, new details surfaced about the deaths of Ahmaud Arberry and Breonna Taylor. My heart sank, my brain paused, and I wept. I attempted to push through my grief, because as a mental health professional, I had a duty to respond and affirm his words: that this pandemic, like many other events in history, hurts so much more than the body. It is taking a terrible toll on the mental health of people of color. This realization is also layered in with many other health-related factors – safe, affordable housing, a good education, access to health care, and adequate nutrition — that drive disparate health outcomes in our country.  

And then the tragedy of George Floyd happened. As I read, watched, and listened, my resolve broke. I am a woman of color, a wife to a black man, and a mother to brown children. My body clenched with tension, my muscles sang out with rage and fear, filling me with both fire and ice that left me wanting to act boldly but frozen in a desperate need to protect those I love. 

In his article, Dr. Williams said, “The unrelenting stress that so many black Americans experience means their physiological systems for coping with stress never get a break. They are always on high alert.”

This state of being on high alert, of constantly being vigilant, can render a body and a brain exhausted over time. This weekend we heard over and over how tired people of color are dealing with racism in this country. The exhaustion is caused by more than the individual acts of violence on black and brown bodies; it is caused by systems that allow those acts to happen with impunity, otherwise known as structural racism.  

Here in Berrien County, we are targeting structural, systemic racism through a project called Community Grand Rounds. Using a trauma-informed and resilience-focused approach, we are creating spaces to have brave conversations around race and racism, and we are educating our community residents about what structural racism looks like and what white privilege entails. And, we are looking to community leaders, both formal and informal, to provide direction and support as we forge ahead collectively to change the unacceptable status quo. We aim to heal the trauma of structural racism through intentional work on policy and practice within systems that have historically harmed communities of color. 

COVID-19 has stolen our breath for a season; systemic racism has stolen our breath for generations. Enough is enough: it is time to change the narrative and envision our community in a new light.