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Monday, September 24, 2007

Racism's toll may be physical

Interesting article from the LA Times:

Statistically, black males in America are at increased risk for just about every health problem known. African Americans have a shorter life expectancy than any other racial group in America except Native Americans, and black men fare even worse than black women. Some of it can be chalked up to poverty, the most powerful determinant of health, or to lifestyle factors. But even when all those factors are accounted for in studies, the gap stubbornly persists. Now researchers are beginning to examine discrimination itself. Racism, more than race, may be cutting black men down before their time.

"Let's say something occurs where you follow me around in a store," Mays says. "I think that's racist. My blood pressure goes up. I get upset. Then I go to a different store. Someone appears to start following me. I am primed from a previous experience and I feel it again. We call it a micro-assault."

According to research into stress, such emotionally packed memories are held in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which regulates fear responses through the release of hormones such as cortisol. "Amygdala-driven stress responses are fight-or-flight based, tailored to survive now, ask questions later," says Billi Gordon, a postdoctoral researcher at the UCLA center. The chemical release happens quickly, aiming for a quick, life-saving response. There isn't even enough time to consult the cortex, the logical part of the brain.

Cortisol readies the body for the immediate danger, taking resources away from the some of the body's longer-term resources, such as control of the immune system, while increasing blood pressure and blood sugar levels. That's fine for the short term, but if it happens again and again, over a lifetime, the continual assaults of racism can result in a greater vulnerability to infection from a weakened immune system. In the long run, it places the body at increased risk for inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and possibly obesity and diabetes as a result of repeated changes to the regulation of glucose, says Barnes.

Over time, the disruption of cortisol control can get even worse. At first, the release of the hormone acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body. But if the body continually overloads with cortisol, the protective system shuts down and then actually reverses, increasing inflammation, which is linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and possibly diabetes.
I was actually thinking about this today while I was walking Buster. This black man, probably in his 50's, showed up to run around the track at about 7am and he ran for an hour. He yelled at me for stealing the inside lane which, as he noted, "belongs to runners in track and field." Okay, sir.

I walked Buster for an hour and this man ran for an hour. As we shared the track for that long time, I thought a lot about how our day and our lives would look very different. I wondered where is past had taken him and what he thought about some white dude walking his dog on the inside lane of his track. He ran hard for the whole hour and we never made eye contact. I couldn't help but feel that we were playing out the drama of many years in a very subtle and silent way.

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