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Death by Discrimination?
Joe R. Feagin
University of Florida
The life expectancy for Americans who are born black is nearly seven years less than that for Americans born white. The evidence is increasing that much of this discrepancy results from the life-threatening effects of discrimination. Today the stress, physical illnesses, and other injuries associated with racism constitute a serious public health problem.
"The stress does make a difference," said a black engineer in a focus group in a southeastern city. "I think it probably takes five years off your life, to tell you the truth, if you let it get to you." The major and minor slights of racism can accumulate to a very negative health impact.
In the last two years I and my colleagues have conducted focus groups on discrimination's costs with African Americans in California, Michigan, and Florida. A common report from these African Americans is that bottling up stress and rage stemming from discrimination leads, from their considered perspective, to such health problems as stomach problems, chest pains, hypertension, and depression.
Most black Americans with whom we talked indicated that these symptoms of severe stress do not happen "on weekends or after five o'clock." There was a consensus that much life-damaging stress comes from hostile work environments. "You stuff that stuff inside, and it comes out in these kinds of ways," commented a nurse in one of the southeastern groups. "That's why black women have a lot of fibroids. Because all of that pain gets stuffed inside." She added, "That's why black men . . . die so early."
Severe and recurring headaches are one consequence of discrimination. "I would have this headache, and it would be for eight hours until I walked out the door and then it was like . . . a weight was lifted off," said a nurse in a midwestern group. "I was having severe headaches, and chest pains. . . . It would be times when I would almost be in the office hyperventilating," commented a social services coordinator in the Southeast. "You begin to doubt yourself."
Workplace stress contributes significantly to other serious problems. "I have never been a sickly type person, and I had never had any problems with my stomach, but I actually did have to go to the doctor, and . . . they ran a test and he diagnosed it as gastrointestinal problems," said a telephone technician about the stress from discrimination at work. "I would actually have serious attacks, where I would really get, really feverish, high fever, and I would just get real, real sick. They'd just flat out let you know that they just didn't like black folks."
Hypertension is another problem linked in part to racist incidents at work. "That's when I got high blood pressure," said a medical professional in the Midwest. She consulted a doctor, who told her to get another job. "I knew I had to have a job because I had children to take care of. But going through what I was going through wasn't really worth it because . . . it was constant intimidation, constant racism, but in a subtle way."
Recent research by Harvard University's Nancy Krieger and Stephen Sidney examined stress and blood pressure for nearly two thousand black Americans. Those who gave accounts of facing discrimination on three or more of seven situational questions tended to have higher blood pressure than those who reported facing discrimination in one or two situations.
Another major cost of racism is energy loss, which can be much more than an individual matter. "One of the things, though, that really has had an effect on my family personally was, me having [less] time to really spend with my son," reported a talented engineer. "As far as reading him stories, talking, working with him . . . . Some days I would come home and I would have such excruciating headaches and chest pains that I would just lay on the bed and put a cold compress on my head and just relax."
The drain on personal strength caused by racism takes a toll on African Americans and other people of color in their lives outside the workplace. "I have withdrawn from some of the things I was involved with at church that were very important to me, like dealing with the kids at church," commented a social services administrator. She added that "by the time I got home at the end of the day, I was just so tired, I didn't even feel like giving back to my community."
Successful men and women of color are important role models in communities but only if they have the energy to participate actively in churches and other community organizations.
Numerous focus group participants indicated that they told their families and friends about serious incidents of discrimination in employment. This spreads the knowledge and pain of discrimination through social networks and communities. In addition, this it also provides the collective basis for an extensive set of creative coping strategies that are developed individually and collectively and passed from one generation to the next over centuries $ which enable African Americans not only to survive recurring racism at the hands of whites, many of whom are oblivious to their own racist behavior, but also to succeed in society even in the face of this often daunting oppression.
White racism has a negative impact on many people of color. Our findings on African Americans parallel those in studies of Latinos in several cities. Significantly, a Latino professor at UF recently told me, "I have done everything good academicians do. I have published quantities of quality research, have become a great teacher, been a good citizen. And, still, white colleagues not even close to my record make thousands of dollars more than I do. Knowing that whatever I do will earn no significant rewards demoralizes me. My biweekly paycheck is the insult responsible for my high blood pressure."
In recent years there has been much public discussion among whites, including policymakers and influential scholars, of a supposedly "declining significance of race" and of the "end of racism." Our data and recent revelations about racial environments at major companies like Texaco show that racial discrimination targeting African Americans, as well as other people of color, is commonplace in all types of workplaces. The costs of discrimination for Americans of color are so serious as to constitute one of this nation's major public health problems.