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4/2/14 at 04:52 PM 6 Comments

How Racism is Bad for our Bodies

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Open hands in world of diversity and no racism
Photo: Pixabay/Kaz Public Domain

By David Murray

In How Racism is Bad for our Bodies, Harvard researcher Jason Silverstein argues that “Stop and Frisk” is a large-scale threat to public health. Whether you agree with him on that particular issue or not, he does link to some stunning evidence on how discrimination increases the risk of depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality. His article especially focuses on the impact of discrimination-related stress:

  • Being a racial minority leads to greater stress: In a study of 30,000 people, 18.2 percent of black participants experienced emotional stress and 9.8 percent experienced physical stress. Comparatively, only 3.5 and 1.6 percent of whites experienced emotional and physical stress, respectively.
  • This stress leads to poorer mental and physical health. This is not only because stress breaks the body down. It is also because stress pushes people to cope in unhealthy ways, especially when they are socially disadvantaged.
  • Just the fear of racism alone switches on the body’s stress-response systems: In a college experiment, when Latina participants thought they were interacting with a racist white partner, they had higher blood pressure, a faster heart rate, etc.
  • When conditions of social injustice affect this many people, and prompt poor health outcomes, risk passes down generations: At a time when the first generation of African Americans born in the post-Jim Crow Era is only 40 years old, it is probably not accidental that current life expectancy among African Americans resembles that of White Americans 40 years ago.

If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christians ought to be at the forefront of fighting discrimination in every sphere: political, ecclesiastical, cultural, legal, etc. But is fighting against racism enough? Is that going to remove these horrendous consequences quickly enough? Is there anything more positive we can do to improve the health and even extend the lives of African Americans, Hispanics, Scots (just kidding), etc.

Some, like Dolphus Weary, have argued persuasively for a sensitive and careful positive discrimination when employers have the opportunity to offer a job to equally qualified candidates.

While that’s a controversial issue, surely we can practice positive discrimination on a personal level. Is there anything we can do today in our interactions with people that will make them feel more loved, more accepted, more valued, etc. It might be just an extra smile and thank you at the checkout. Maybe we can do or say something positive online. Or how about an encouraging word to a colleague, or even a complete stranger?

You never know, it could save (or extend) a life.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.

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