If you doubt there’s a difference between being black and white in America, consider how fear of the police makes one racial group physiologically unhealthy while the other lives without a similar care in the world.
Of course, black Americans know only too well that the potential horror and carnage produced by the police can swoop down upon them — often without cause — with lethal force, leaving them with an ever-present fear that afflicts their mental health. Yet, for most white Americans, such notions seem like unfounded paranoia.
Well, it’s not: So says a recent study by a prestigious British medical journal, which found that police killings of unarmed black Americans take a severe toll on the mental well-being of black people, while the same incidents have virtually no impact on the health of white people.
“Police killings of unarmed black Americans were associated with worse mental health among other black Americans in the general US population,” a June 21 report in The Lancet stated. “Our results point to the importance of structural racism as a driver of population health disparities.”
Such findings shouldn’t come as a surprise, given numerous reports and anecdotal observations that have continually drawn a similar connection between the negative health effects of black people living in communities that are harshly policed, including especially the impact on black women.
It’s really about all the kinds of insidious ways that structural racism can make people sick.
While drawing a causal link between between racism and health outcomes is difficult-to-impossible to prove to a great many Americans’ satisfaction, this report nevertheless ably documents that “[scholarly] literature has shown associations between racism and health outcomes, emphasizing the pathogenic roles of discrimination and differential access to socioeconomic opportunities.”
But The Lancet study attempts to go beyond current scholarship by noting the impact on people not directly affected by police killings of unarmed black Americans. To reach its findings, the researchers examined responses from more than 400,000 adults surveyed by phone about their mental health in states where high-profile police killings of unarmed black Americans had occurred within the previous three months. Scholars then plotted their findings against a national database of where police have killed black Americans.
The researchers compared the mental health of black Americans surveyed after a police killing of an unarmed black American in the same state with the mental health of black Americans residing in the same state but surveyed before that event or more than three months after the event. What they found is simultaneously predictable and outrageous:
- In the period covering 2013 and 2015, nearly four in 10 of the more than 100,000 black adults questioned by telephone were exposed to at least one police killing of an unarmed black American in the preceding three-month period before the survey. After making adjustments to make the survey representative of the national population, the number jumps to almost half of all black residents, or 49 percent.
- Asked how many days in the last 30 days their mental health was “not good,” black Americans reported an increase in the number of days it was “not good,” with the greatest effects on mental well-being occurred in the first two months following a shooting in the state.
- Researchers estimated that police killings could account for 1.7 additional poor mental health days per black American per year, totaling 55 million additional poor mental health days per year for black adults in the general U.S. population.
Dr. Atheendar S. Venkataramani, one of the study’s lead authors, told The New York Times that police violence in black communities is a public health issue. “Having seen something so horrific and traumatic that happened to someone else, I’m reminded in a very painful and salient way that the deck might be stacked against me,” Venkataramani said. “It’s really about all the kinds of insidious ways that structural racism can make people sick.”
Taking their research methodology an additional step, the researchers discovered the most damning and disturbing results of police killings: Unlike the negative impact on black Americans’ health, police shooting of unarmed black people had no impact on white Americans’ health.
“When examining the mechanisms underlying our findings, we found that exposure to police killings of unarmed black Americans was not associated with changes in mental health among white Americans, nor was exposure to police killings of unarmed white Americans,” the report said. “Additionally, exposure to police killings of armed black Americans was not associated with changes in mental health among black or white Americans.”
This study goes a long way in helping to explain the often-dismissed notions about how racism kills black people. But the true value of this work is in its credible theory explaining why so many white Americans fail to see or believe that black lives matter. Plain and simple, the police behavior doesn’t affect their well-being in the same dangerous and unhealthy way it does by simply being black in America.