The hidden effects of racism
Kim Anderson went into labor with her first child two and a half months early. “I didn’t get to take my baby home,” she remembers. “Instead of gently laying my newborn in the soft bassinette in her own little bedroom, I had to travel back to the hospital each day to look down at my precious creation tethered to wires, monitored by machines, and sleeping fitfully in an environmentally controlled incubator.”
It’s long been known that a nutritious diet; exercise; the avoidance of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes; along with sound prenatal care usually lead to a “good” pregnancy and birth. Another of the best predictors of a healthy pregnancy is higher education. Kim had them all. What happened?
The answer uncovers a long-hidden danger to the unborn.
According to a 2006 study by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control, infant mortality for children born to White college graduates is about 3.7 deaths per 1,000 births. For African American college graduates such as Kim Anderson, that number rises to 10.2 deaths per one thousand births—almost three times higher.1
“As a mother you’re thinking, I did all the right things,” Kim says. “Then why is my kid sitting here with all these needles? You feel really helpless.”
Thankfully, little Danielle survived and today attends Emory University. But the emotional scars still linger in her mother. Some of those scars scientists are only now beginning to identify.
Research conducted by Chicago neonatologists Richard David and James Collins rules out genetics as a factor in the rise of infant mortality in minorities. They cite information gathered during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s that showed a marked improvement in healthy birth rates for African American women as society became more supportive and racial prejudices faded somewhat.2
But as social programs lost support during 1980s and 1990s and overt racism once again flowed unchecked across American society, those healthy birth rates quickly fell. In contrast, the numbers have always remained on the positive side in countries other than the United States.3
Genetic adjustments take generations. Hate works very quickly.
How does hate do its damage? By changing chemistry. “The body’s response to stress can involve more than fourteen hundred chemical reactions,” says cardiologist James Marcum in the book The Ultimate Prescription. “When the body is under chronic stress from whatever the cause, cortisol levels, for instance, remain elevated. . . . Our entire beings are impacted.”4
The creation of life within a mother’s womb requires an ongoing symphony of chemical reactions—all working in perfect harmony. But if enough wrong notes are generated through chronic stress, the end result is dangerous discord leading ultimately to low healthy birth rates. During the civil rights movement, healing hope filled hearts and minds. But when racism returned, so did the unique stress it creates.
What’s It Feel Like?
I asked Kim Anderson, now CEO of Families First, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, what racism felt like. She cited instances in her life in which it reared its ugly head, such as the time she stopped at an upscale Atlanta boutique to do some shopping. She soon became aware that the salesperson was not letting her out of her sight, following her and observing her every move. “I’m not going to steal anything,” Kim told her uninvited companion. “I’m only here to shop.” But the shadowing continued.
Such scrutiny also exists in the job market, where Anderson admits economics plays a role. “When things are difficult and competition is high, we tend to want to get rid of competition,” she says. “We justify our actions through hatred. That hatred can take the form of racism, classism, or discrimination against people we perceive are threats to us. If there are 12 of us in line trying to get 10 jobs, I have to justify why I’m better than somebody else, and sometimes I do that using what I can see. You can almost track the rise in racism in this country by the economic conditions we face.”
Anderson added that unfounded presumptions also carry a lot of weight concerning those who aren’t like us—underscoring the example in the boutique. But, she says, that knife cuts both ways. “I as a Black woman anticipate certain things, and that leads to greater tension. I anticipate that if I walk into a boardroom and I’m the only African American female, I believe there are going to be certain things said or certain things thought or certain things felt. That insecurity causes a physiological response in me, which, according to scientific research, generates a physical impact on my mind and body.”
Those presumptions often make the leap from boutiques and boardrooms to places of worship.
History is rife with cultures or entire civilizations in which religion wasn’t just a set of long-treasured traditions. Religion wasn’t just what you did; it was who you were. An aggressive move denouncing someone’s faith was considered an affront to the very core of their being. You didn’t insult their religion. You insulted them.
This type of fervor has led many to war, the results of which have created embers of revenge that burn even to this day. To Christians, who passionately support the basic tenets of religious liberty, extra care must be taken when coming face to face with those of other faiths—or those with no faith at all. Why? Because we’re supposed to project Christ—Someone who not only brought comfort and hope to those struggling with life’s inequities but offered healing as well. To do, say, or infer anything that paints a less-than-supportive picture of another person’s beliefs can generate scientifically measurable damage to that individual’s mind and body. Our actions can affect their health and well-being in some profound ways.
When we turn our backs on people or show little or no respect for what they believe, we’ve stopped reflecting the very God we’re trying to represent.
Conversely, religious acceptance, respect, and freedom carry the power to heal. When we wave and smile at that new student from another culture, when we strike down long-held ordinances in our school or community that discriminate on the basis of color or creed, when we support religious accommodation in the workplace, when we look upon people as equal and insist that they enjoy the very same rights and freedoms that we demand, we’re making a difference in lives clear down to the cellular level.
Three Steps to Healing
Kim Anderson says there are three steps to healing racism, and it begins with intent.
“We need to be intentional about our desire to learn, intentional about broadening our horizons, intentional about our positive interactions with one another. If we work hard to build relationships with people who are different from us and demonstrate through our positive interactions that we’re doing it just because they’re a person of value, this begins to break the cycle of ignorance.
“Then we have to model that for our children and grandchildren.
“And finally, we can use media to respond to inequalities when we see them. Everybody has the power of the pen these days on the Internet. Speak up! If we don’t lovingly challenge our friends or the people with whom we go to school, church, or work, ignorance perpetuates itself.”
We’ve all been given the opportunity to join in a heaven-ordained healing ministry by expressing—with our words and actions—the full intent of Christ’s powerful invitation found in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another.”
- National Center for Health Statistics, CDC, 2006, www.cdc.gov/nchs/.
- As presented in Unnatural Causes documentary DVD series, chapter 2: “When the Bough Breaks,” California Newsreel, 2008, www.unnaturalcauses.org.
- James L. Marcum, The Ultimate Prescription (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010), pp. 24-26.
Charles Mills, a West Virginia-based author and a former editor of Vibrant Life magazine, hosts health programs on the LifeTalk and 3ABN radio networks. He’s also the host of LifeQuest Liberty, a radio show produced by Liberty magazine.