Dying While Black: The Toll Race Related Stress Takes on the Life Expectancy of Black Men and Women
Dr Mark Naison
I am lucky enough to have two best friends, people I talk to almost daily and with whom I share the triumphs, tragedies and absurdities of life. On the surface, they have a lot in common- both are in their early sixties, both are professors, both grew up in middle class families and went to New York City public schools,, and both are still married to the same woman they met at fell in love with when they were in their early twenties. Their political views are also quite comparable- they are both liberal Democrats, deeply committed to social justice struggles at home and abroad, and they are incredibly kind, caring and considerate people
However, there is one difference between them that, despite these commonalities, has great significance – one is white and one is Black.
The place where this difference matters, however is not where most people would expect to find it- it is not in food, music, political ideology, or response to racial issues
Rather, it is in health, life expectancy and the cumulative effects of stress that I see the experience of my two friends diverge the most.
And here the indicator is a rather grisly one- attendance at funerals
My friend Robert ( the white one) regularly attends the funerals of relatives in his parents generation, but only on rare occasions, once a year at most, attends the funeral of a friend..
In contrast, my friend Bill , who is Black, attends the funeral of a different friend or relative –in his own age group ALMOST ONCE A MONTH. The causes are diverse, heart disease, strokes, cancer, but it is chilling to see how many people in his cohort, all of them black, are dying of “natural causes” in their late 50’s or early 60’s.
What makes it more unsettling is that Bill’s friends and relatives, for the most part, are not people suffering from the injuries of poverty- they are college educated professionals who have been middle class their entire adult lives, and who have health insurance, access to a healthy food, and the opportunity to take vacations.
But they are Black and in this society, being Black and middle class means being exposed to all kinds of stresses their white middle class counterparts barely can imagine.
What happened to Henry Louis Gates- being arrested at his own home in a white middle class neighborhood because police and neighbors thought he was breaking in- is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stress inducers on African Americans. Every traffic stop has the same potential to escalate into a humiliating or even life threatening incident
Even activities seemingly as innocent as shopping, staying in a hotel or eating in a restaurant can turn into the emotional equivalent of walking through a minefield. Most black Americans have had some experience of being followed in stores, offered reluctant or inferior service in restaurants, or being patronized and slighted by personnel at resorts.
Even though such experiences are episodic, rather than routine, the fear of their occurrence casts a pall over activities that should be relaxing, adding a layer of tension to Black people’s lives that most whites don’t have to cope with.
A final, and perhaps most devastating source of stress on Black professionals is the fact that they cannot get angry at work without being marginalized and written off as “an angry Black person.” The Barack Obama persona that took him to the Presidency- cool and collected under pressure, unwilling to respond in kind to the most extreme provocation- is one that has a long history of working for Black professionals in high profile occupations, but which extracts a terrible emotional price. Having to internalize feelings of rage and disappointment in ways that white colleagues would never have to translates into a wide variety of medical conditions which become life threatening when one enters middle age.
To those who think I am exaggerating, take a close look at US life expectancy statistics, aggregated by race and then do a little research of your own. --- ask your Black friends over 60 how many funerals they have attended in the last two years, and then ask your white friends over 60 the same question.
I suspect the results will be the same as what I discovered when comparing Robert and Bill.