Despair for all, Black and white

Health outcomes for white Americans

New research, described in March 2017 in the Washington Post, describes a “sea of despair” among white, working-class Americans. According to this ongoing research, the consequences of despair and lack of opportunity in the white people studied are stark: family dysfunction, social isolation, sickness, addiction, alcoholism, obesity and other pathologies, early death from illness, drug overdoses, suicide. The researchers tentatively say this “cumulative disadvantage” is due to a lack of job opportunities. They explain: “People may want to soothe the beast. They may do that with alcohol, they may do that with drugs, they may do that with food.” The more educated you are the less likely you are to suffer these outcomes.

Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.

What can be done for white, working-class Americans? The researchers suggest “[T]here is no obvious solution but…a starting point would be limiting the overuse of opioids, which killed more than 30,000 Americans in 2015.” Many politicians agree. Chris Christie recently said about the opioid crisis: “What we need to come to grips with is addiction is a disease and no life is disposable. We can help people by giving them appropriate treatment.”

Despair for Black Americans as well

Some of these stress-related effects and pathologies of long-term despair in the white community sound an awful lot like the ongoing physical issues experienced by the Black population. In “Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?” researchers looked at the effects that stress and poverty have at the cellular level in Black women:

we estimate that at ages 49–55, black women are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women. Indicators of perceived stress and poverty account for 27% of this difference

Other researchers are looking at how race-based discrimination affects brain functioning and physiologic response in the Black population. In “Race, Race-Based Discrimination, and Health Outcomes Among African Americans,” the authors note that:

residential segregation and social economic inequality…work to concentrate social stressors, which in turn set into motion high allostatic loads that are associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease, chronic inflammation, and cognitive impairment.

Opioids vs Crack

So is Chris Christie right? Is it true that “no life is disposable?” What if we compared the current “opioid crisis” with the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s-90s. (By the way: do “crisis” & “epidemic” have two different connotations?). Do we as a society treat them differently? The crack crisis was blamed on the population that was disproportionately affected, whereas the opioid crisis is viewed as a problem for us to solve together through caring, funding, treatment, and legislation. Even Republican and neo-fascist politicians are paying lip service to the opioid crisis as a problem needing more time, effort, and money to understand and address. I remember no such concern for victims of the crack crisis. On the contrary, victims were demonized. “There was no wave of compassion when addicts were hooked on crack.” Ekow Yankah, Law Professor at Yeshiva University, explained,

Back then, when addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion. Instead, we were warned of super predators…African-Americans were cast as pathological. Their plight was evidence of collective moral failure, of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs and a reason to cut off all help. Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic. Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.

Yet, like the negative health effects that accrue from a life of stress and lack of opportunity, the pathologies of these crises are remarkably similar. The irony is that “Whites continue to have longer life expectancy than African Americans and lower death rates, but that gap has narrowed since the late 1990s.” Now that white people are experiencing the stress and related health outcomes that Blacks have always experienced in this country, we’re suddenly able as a society to call it what it is: a social and political problem that needs to be addressed structurally.

Shame on us

This is white supremacy in action: concern for some, blame for others. Accepting the story our media and leaders put in front of us because it serves their agenda. We well-meaning white people need to think harder about how we interpret the data we receive from the world, question why we believe what we believe, and consider how we contribute to false narratives based on our own biased understanding of the world. We’ve been indoctrinated into racist thinking–it’s the air we’ve been breathing since birth–and it comes so naturally to us. We need to learn to question it. White supremacy distorts our ability to see clearly, to reason based on facts. It distorts the questions we ask, the data we decide to collect or ignore. It results in confirmation bias: proving what we already believe. Well-meaning white people: if we don’t do better we’re simply perpetuating white supremacy. We need to fight it inside ourselves as well as the world around us. Let’s make a commitment to confront our own white supremacy every day. This isn’t something we can just blame on other people (those guys with tiki torches, that annoying uncle, that politician we helped elect but over whom we now have no control).

It’s on us to recognize and overcome in ourselves. Otherwise we’re just as bad as the next racist.