A great bit of my work as a historian examines America’s fascination with developing its national character: its mottos, beliefs, fortitude, and body politic. The latter depended heavily on the construction of fitness and public hygiene but had to consider those on the periphery of citizenship: African Americans, immigrants. In short: the nation grappled with the might of Whiteness and the White man’s burden of managing those outside of that construct. Discrimination grew as a natural character flaw within the development of this great nation.
…And America will always be a great nation.
That greatness birthed innovation, ingenuity, tremendous wealth, and the global authority of a world power. With it though, came white mob violence, redlining, sundown towns, segregation, and a host of Jim Crow laws that embodied a fractured nationality. Perhaps no place has fracturing been more apparent than in the health of its citizens, whether based on conditions, life expectancy, or morbidity. It was no surprise, then, in May 2020, when former American Psychological Association president, Sandra L. Shullman, released a statement on the impact of racism on Black American health.
“We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens. The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders,” she said. “Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.”
Shullman’s impassioned plea for greater oversight went largely unchecked as data continued to pronounce graver health outcomes when Black patients faced the bias of health practitioners and lack of access alongside various ailments.
Since Shullman’s statement, little has changed. In fact, the nation has seen an uptick in scientific racism played out most notably in the NFL use of “race norming” – a controversial medical practice that made theoretical assumptions that Black players had lower cognitive function than white players – in its dementia tests for brain injury settlements.
In an interview with Vox, Harvard historian David S. Jones said of the race norming scandal, “Is it really likely that the average person of African ancestry is cognitively impaired when compared to the average white person? I can’t think of how that could actually be true. And the assumption that it is true just sounds like white supremacist racism to me. We need to subject any claims like this to really strict scrutiny.”
Still, America seems unwilling to march full steam ahead into scrutinizing and then strategically setting aside the racist assumptions that fuel public health policies. This is not only heavy lifting but would require acknowledging the cannons of our biology textbooks, medical understanding, and health practices, have made missteps and mistakes. Then too, this is America and if there is one place where the promise of change exists, it is here.
Read, Learn, Grow.
Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman