Racism as the Disease

by Sonya Bhatia

On June 3rd, 2020, the Cleveland City Council voted to declare racism a public health crisis. This requires that following CDC guidelines, they must eradicate health disparities that emerge from racism. These measures also acknowledge the racist history of the United States and that racism directly impacts health outcomes, particularly for Black populations. Steps include improving educational disparities, home environment and quality of life in addition to access to jobs, earning power, and health care. Other cities have followed suit, such as Somerville, Massachusetts. We must exert civic pressure and call on Georgia’s local and municipal governments, and public health departments to do the same– to draft policy and pass legislation for racism to be declared a public health crisis. Recent events have brought to light what has been there all along: racism is the disease that causes disease.

Health disparities between white and Black populations are quite evident. Adult obesity rates for African Americans are higher in nearly every state as compared to whites. African Americans experience higher occurrence and mortality rates for many cancers, particularly those that can be diagnosed and treated early. Hypertension is almost 50% more common among Black Americans than Whites. COVID-19 is no exception; as reported in late May, the death rate from this pandemic was 2.4 times greater for African Americans than white folks. 

Georgia reflects national trends and health disparities, while manifesting how racism damages bodies. The 11 counties in Georgia with the lowest health outcomes are Burke, Warren, Macon, Sumter, Stewart, Randolph, Early, Dougherty, Miller, Twiggs, and Clinch. Of these 11 counties, eight (Burke, Warren, Macon, Sumter, Stewart, Randolph, Early, and Dougherty) have a majority Black population. These health outcomes were quantified by length of life and quality of life, which represented the accumulation of many different health behaviors, access to and quality of care, socioeconomic factors, and physical environment quality. This data proves no coincidence, but rather demonstrates the stark health disparities between Black and white folks in Georgia. These disparities have precipitated out of historical and deeply embedded systems of racism that have compounded to damage the bodies of POC, particularly Black folks in Georgia. To really solve the issue, we must dig deeper.

On January 1, 1751, the institution of slavery in Georgia was legalized. For one hundred years to follow, the growth and development of Georgia was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. By the time of the American revolution, the colony of Georgia held 16,000 slaves. After American independence, it seemed that the tide of slavery might be coming to an end. However, the success and dependence on the slave-based cotton and rice economy assured the continuance of slavery. Once again, the economy overrode humanity to the detriment of Black lives and freedom.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Black Georgians saw some freedoms that were only to be lost in the 1890s. There were many historical moments and movements that contributed to the ultimate passage and legalization of the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racism in order to uphold white supremacy. These included the rise in “scientific racism” and colonization of nonwhite peoples in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Cuba. In Georgia specifically and most substantially, there was a boom in the migration of populations from multiple races. The rapid expansion, particularly in Atlanta, caused a systemic racist response in the form of more segregationist laws. These laws expanded their reach and formalized Jim Crow laws beginning in the 1890s. In addition to the discrimination in housing and employment, the denial to vote, and the segregation of public places, were the lynchings. In the years 1882-1930, Georgia had the second highest number of lynch victims with the loss of 458 Black lives. This was a period of serious violence and public, formalized oppression that cannot be forgotten.

Georgia has spent over 210 years of its existence, the majority of its history, in overt forms of institutionalized racism through slavery and the Jim Crow era. It has only been 66 years since the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. And even then, public facilities throughout Georgia regions remained segregated until the 1970s.

We see the legacy of their racism seep into Georgia’s societies and institutions as they continue to oppress Black lives through systemic racism. Systemic racism is policies and practices embedded in our institutions to uphold white supremacy.  We see this in residential and educational segregation. We see it in police brutality and other institutions that hold up white supremacy. We see it manifesting itself through the health outcomes of Black Georgians. Racial trauma runs deep both in history and in the body.

Racism damages the body. One of the main ways these systems shows up in the body is through chronic stress. The cardiovascular reactivity hypothesis postulates that a relationship exists between cardiovascular responses and exposure to stress. Chronic stress manifests itself into many deadly and damaging forms on the body, including hypertension and heart disease. Another explanation lies in the maintenance of homeostasis after exposure to stress. When exposed to chronic stressors, the psychosocial responses involved in this maintenance cannot perform as well, and thus BP cannot recover to normal levels. A body’s inability to respond properly to further stress results in increased oxidative stress and inflammation that characterizes numerous cardiovascular and cardio metabolic diseases.

We must reverse the normalization of this violence and oppression. We must let the prospect of this reversal fuel us into liberation and healing; that requires action. Georgia’s governmental and public health entities must acknowledge and actively fight against the disease of racism. It is up to us to make sure that it happens.