The recent spate of police shootings — leaving two black men dead on opposite ends of the country — inspired a familiar response from lawmakers across the United States, many of whom called for policy changes and powerful legislation. However, a growing number of human rights advocates are pushing officials to address this kind of racial violence from an entirely different angle: Public health.
“We’re talking about people responding to their environment like they are in a war zone,” said David Love, author and former director of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “What you have is disparate impacts on health — it’s not a matter of political opinions.”
Being in a heightened state of awareness begins to deteriorate your body after a point
A day after a police officer in Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile, Love published an editorial with CNN, demanding the public recognize the health outcomes linked to racial violence.
“With each successive fatal shooting of an African-American by law enforcement, the human element gets lost in the shuffle,” he wrote. Love argues that the country’s “denial of racism” has allowed officials to incorrectly deny that racism has any impact on a person’s well-being. “We know this stress can affect people in serious ways. We need to address that.”
A slew of medical studies support Love’s position. The American Psychological Association has called “exposure to racism and discrimination” a cause for unusually high levels of stress unique to African Americans. In 2012, the American Journal of Public Health dedicated an entire issue to the public health inequities based on race, including the “psychological distress” of racial discrimination. And the American Public Health Association released a policy statement explicitly affirming that “police brutality and excessive use of force are widely reported and have disproportionate impact on people of color” and urging federal and state lawmakers to acknowledge and address the health consequences of police violence on people of color.
Short-term stress and trauma, igniting a person’s adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight” response, leaves many people with long-term health consequences, like elevated blood pressure, a faster heartbeat, and increased stress hormones. Most of these symptoms increase a person’s likelihood of having heart disease — currently the leading cause of death for African Americans.
We’re talking about people responding to their environment like they are in a war zone
“Being in a heightened state of awareness begins to deteriorate your body after a point,” said Judy Lubin, a sociologist and adjunct professor at Howard University.
And this stress is often triggered by the videos of shootings of black men that keep going viral. Lubin said that after last week’s videos of police violence hit the internet, she heard a familiar response from her close friends and family.
“They all expressed a heightened level of pain and hurt and anger,” she said. “But the worst part is their sense of despair. I fear for the health of all African Americans every time one of these videos come out. This is most certainly a public health issue.”
Reframing the discussion this way — to talk about racism like an issue of public health concern — could help some Americans stop tiptoeing around the topic, according to Love.
“I think that allies of communities of color…white people, for example, have an important role to play in educating people on the effects of discrimination,” he said.
The medical community could also start doing more to educate the public, Love added.
“If there are doctors out there who care about this issue, they need to reach out to their community — make the extra effort — to make this information accessible to the people.”