Brown School Race, equity and social justice in Neuroscience

Racism’s hidden toll

A candlelight vigil at the Say Their Names Cemetery installation in Minneapolis in June this year. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd came to this city with a broken body and wilted dreams, his many attempts at a better life out of his grasp. He was left with no college degree, no sports contract, no rap career, not even a steady job. At 43, what he had was an arrest record and a drug problem, his hopes hinging on one last shot at healing.

So in February of 2017 he decided to board a bus in Houston and ride more than 1,100 miles on Interstate 35 almost straight north to Minneapolis. Waiting for him was his friend Aubrey Rhodes, who had taken the same journey a year earlier. Rhodes was now sober and working as a security guard at the Salvation Army.

“Damn, bro, it’s cold,” Rhodes recalled Floyd saying on what was, for Minnesota, a balmy 50-degree winter day.

“You ready for this?” Rhodes asked him. “You can get yourself together here. You can find a way to live.”

Finding a way to live has never been a sure thing for Black men in America, who are taught from an early age that any misstep could lead to a prison cell or a coffin. They have higher rates of hypertension, obesity and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely as White men to die of a cocaine overdose, twice as likely to be killed by police and, in Floyd’s age group, 10 times as likely to die of a homicide.

Public-health researchers and scientists once held that these disparities were the result of poor choices — bad diets, lack of exercise, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But experts are increasingly pointing to another culprit: systemic racism. Being Black in America, they have found, is its own preexisting condition…

Darrell Hudson, PhD, a public health professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in race and health, said studies since have shown that African Americans tended to have elevated levels of hormones such as cortisol, which typically rise as a response to stress. While those rises can be helpful in limited spurts — providing focus to pull an all-nighter, or increasing heart rates to accomplish a strenuous physical challenge — they also strain the immune system. That’s why students get sick after finals week or athletes can get so sore after big games.

If those cortisol levels remain high over a prolonged period, as has been found in African Americans, the strain makes people more susceptible to sickness. Hudson and other researchers concluded that those elevated levels were not about genetics, but racism. The stress of everything, from everyday slights to fears of a deadly interaction with the police, alters human physiology.

“There’s nothing different about how people respond to stress across race,” Hudson said. “The context that people live in is racialized, however. It’s about the chronicity of it and your relationship with it: Do you feel you have some control over what stresses you, without a herculean effort and a lot of luck? If not, everything piles up.”

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