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Mildred Antenor Commentary: Racism and Its Effects on Health

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WBGO Commentator Mildred Antenor

Growing up in the immigrant community of Brooklyn, New York, I often would hear the adults around me lament about the stress that they were enduring on a daily basis. Sometimes their protests were about their children, at other times it was about their spouses, but most of the time it dealt with the lack that they experienced as immigrant Black men and women and the discrimination and lack of resources that they were forced to live with constantly.

Another major observation that I noticed was that a good majority of the Haitian immigrants that I grew up around all seemed to suffer from similar ailments. Those diseases for the most part were almost always hypertension and diabetes.

It struck me how almost every person of color in my community suffered from a similar disease. I didn’t realize why that was but, as I now have a better understanding of the root causes of these ailments. It seems that this was not a coincidence.

Recently, a study in the Journal Health Services Research looked at 29 literature reviews on discrimination and it found that perceived racial discrimination is linked to mental and physical health in all sorts of ways. People who experience racism have all kinds of sleep problems, cardiovascular disease, premature births, as well as higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol. And systemic racism plays a part in that. Things like: unequal access to resources and constant discriminatory treatment by different institutions account for a lot of health problems.

Now --- we know that going through these discriminatory experiences is without a doubt stressful. And stress can wreak havoc on the body. Experiments in which Black subjects were exposed to racist situations have shown an immediate rise in blood pressure.---- The brain releases a surge of stress hormones which cause the blood vessels to constrict and the heart rate to jump, creating a spike in blood pressure. Combined with the forces of systemic racism which come largely from institutions and policies, ----- these experiences ADD UP over time and they’ve been linked to chronic hypertension, depression and other health and mental health conditions.

I’ve experienced this many times myself, most recently after the George Floyd murder. In my case, it caused me depression and insomnia.

The impacts of racial discrimination are not just short term. They continue to impact Black people and people of color in consistently negative ways. And those ways are often deadly.

The truth of the matter is, it took 400 years to get to this crises. And as much as I’d like to wish this calamity away, I know that it’s going to take quite some time to get us out of it.

I’m Mildred Antenor

Mildred Antenor is a professor and the author of the Gladioli Are Invisible: A Memoir