This is Black Health Matters, a series shedding light on the health realities of Black people in America. Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, in partnership with Healthline, aims to educate about inequities to inspire a world where everyone can attain their full health potential, regardless of the color of their skin.
Imagine living in a constant state of stress.
You repeatedly ask people not to touch your hair. You pretend it’s not hurtful when people say “you talk white.”
You advocate for yourself daily as the only Black person in your workplace or social circle.
You fear for your life at a traffic stop. You doubt whether your child will come home every night.
This is the reality of Black people in America. This is why we say, “Black lives matter.”
We have been fighting for humanity, equality, dignity, and respect since the enslavement of Black people in America. It takes a toll.
It’s exhausting to have to prove your worth, your right to life, every single day.
The power of community
This is what makes community so essential for Black people. We need a space where we’re safe to exist.
The physical, social, and economic conditions that affect well-being, known as the
These factors include:
- positive relationships at home, work, and in the wider community
- high rates of civic engagement and advocacy
- environments free from discrimination
- low rates of incarceration and policing
Black people often don’t have access to safe communities like this.
What kind of support can communities actually provide when they’re riddled with stress?
The enslavement of Africans in America began in the 1500s.
History tends to point to 1619 to signify the beginning of enslavement of Africans in an English colony, although records show the Spanish were first in what’s now Florida.
Slavery is an important part of American history. It set the tone for how Black people are still being treated today.
When slavery was abolished, things did not automatically get better for Black people. It marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era and the Ku Klux Klan. Both upheld values of white supremacy and dominance.
Discrimination flourished on plantations and progressed to today’s oppression of Black communities, workplaces, schools, and more.
“Whites Only” signs, seen into the late 1960s, gave white people the permission to accost Black people verbally or physically for virtually no reason.
The Ku Klux Klan, which former confederates began in 1865, terrorized Black neighborhoods. Many KKK members worked in law enforcement and city offices to ensure policies and legislation would be in place to protect white supremacy.
Civic participation and advocacy
Today, white supremacy lives on.
The insurrection of January 6, 2021 was a public display of terror meant to uphold white dominance.
A noose erected at the Capitol stood tall. The message was clear: Slavery’s legacy is not over.
Although comparisons have been made to Black Lives Matter protests, it’s important to note that Black organizers are fighting for the humanity and equality of Black people.
They’re fighting to have the same access to healthy communities, work opportunities, education, and livelihood as white people and for the end of police brutality.
We also know that if Black protestors wanted to enter the Capitol, it would be a different, tragic scene.
Much like the Civil Rights Movement of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black Lives Matter advocates for better and healthier lives for Black people. Better, healthier lives for Black people means better, healthier lives for all people.
Institutions that should be sources of support are often persistent sources of stress for the Black community.
- public servants like the police
- housing opportunities
- the criminal justice system
- the educational system
Microaggressions, or covert racism, are words and actions that happen daily through these systems and places. These small, almost invisible aggressions build into large sources of discouragement, fear, and anguish for Black people.
When the body enters fight or flight mode, it releases adrenaline to handle a real or perceived threat. When the body stays in fight or flight all the time, it leads to chronic stress known as allostatic load.
Constant stress is known to increase the likelihood of illness, and Black people are already more susceptible due to the stress of racism.
Black people are also being hit harder by COVID-19, a situation in which the effects of systemic racism are present.
As of January 2021, according to The COVID Tracking Project, COVID-19 has taken over 60,000 Black lives. Black people are dying of COVID-19 at 1.7 times the rate of white people.
Black women bear the extra burden of discrimination based on gender. Having to carry the weight of both sexual and racial discrimination is a major psychosocial stressor.
As a result, Black women are at higher risk for low birth weight babies, infant death, and
Incarceration and policing
The 13th Amendment ended slavery — except as punishment for a convicted crime. This loophole is responsible for today’s criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system is not a place for justice. It’s a way to continually oppress Black people and other communities of color. Black men are imprisoned at a rate almost 6 times higher than white men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to The Marshall Project, 1 in 5 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s four times higher than the rate for the general population.
Due to overcrowded prisons and open floor plans, it’s essentially impossible to quarantine. Prisoners have a COVID-19 mortality rate that’s 45 percent higher than the national rate, per The Marshall Project.
State or federal policies like life without parole, three strikes rules, and mandatory minimum sentences impact Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) unfairly.
These policies lead to harmful outcomes for:
What you can do
It’s important for Black people to reconnect to joy. Our communities are strong, yet we’re faced with constant strife. Take a break from the news and social media and fill up your own tank.
For white allies, we need your advocacy. As much as the Black Lives Matter sign is appreciated in your window or on your lawn, we need you to take action.
Support your allyship journey through tools like the Ally Nudge, a program to get allyship action reminders via text, or host your own workshop on Icebreaker.
Take the time to learn about criminal justice reform locally or nationally.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a great place to start to learn about, act in support of, or donate to reform. Have a discussion with friends or family about the founder’s story by watching “Just Mercy” together.
Then check out the series “When They See Us” on Netflix to learn more about the perception and resilience of Black people in American society.
I am the product of triangular trade, the economic model that supported slavery.
As a first-generation Haitian, my father’s side ties back to the history of the enslavement of Africans traded for sugar and rum. Haiti is the first Black country to have a successful revolution for independence from slavery.
My Louisiana roots on my mother’s side include stories of how my grandmother passed for white. She and her family had the privilege of being able to navigate otherwise unsafe spaces because of this.
Today, I use my privilege to continually fight for the humanity and equality of Black people. I’m driven by my roots.
I make sure you see us and hear us. You can use your privilege like this too.
Black people are resilient. Even with the shadow of slavery, we still shine.
There’s nothing like Black people gathering to celebrate each other. With everything designed to stop our ascension, we still persevere.
Akilah Cadet, MPH, works with tech companies, nonprofits, retail, and small businesses to assure diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that support Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), women, and the marginalized communities in the workplace. As a Black woman, she uses her personal and professional experiences to inspire her anti-racism work through coaching, strategy, facilitation, and organizational change. She’s proud to live in Oakland, CA, has a rare heart condition, and is a proud Beyoncé advocate. Follow her here.