Racism harms Black men’s well-being — but advocacy can heal


Centuries of racism are built into our country’s structure, including education, healthcare, employment, finance, housing, and judicial systems.

Racism takes the form of unequal education; inconsistent hiring practices and job opportunities; little or no access to healthcare and/or insurance; racial profiling; police brutality; higher and more severe incarceration; and discriminatory lending practices that make it hard for Black people to get loans, buy homes, and build wealth.

Racial barriers make it tougher for Black men to succeed in life than their White counterparts, including their ability to get good healthcare. These barriers harm Black men’s physical and mental health more profoundly than white men. According to the CDC, the life expectancy of non-Hispanic/Black Americans is four years lower than White Americans. Racial and ethnic minority groups also have higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions.

University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Sirry Alang, Associate Dean of Equity and Justice and Associate Professor of Health & Human Development, studies how racism shapes health over a person’s lifespan. “Structural racism is about two basic things for Black communities,” she explains. “It’s about unequal access to resources, including power, and how Black people are dehumanized and made to feel less than White people.”

According to research, racism causes stress that messes with a person’s brain, heart, hormones, and immune system. The result is diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, heart and kidney disease, and cancer at higher rates and with worse outcomes than white people.

“What we’re finding is that worrying about racism, being hypervigilant about your safety as a Black man, and feeling anxious about whether you can provide for yourself and your family puts wear and tear on your organs,” Dr. Alang explains.

Mental health is affected as well. In one of Dr. Alang’s studies, Black men identified that other people’s perceptions of them caused them anxiety. “The dehumanization of racism means Black men question how other people see them in the workplace, on the street, in church, on the bus,” says Dr. Alang. “This constant state of worrying about what others think is not normal. Where do Black men find a space to rest and care for themselves?”

To break down barriers to Black men’s health, Dr. Alang reminds us that Black men are not responsible for fixing the systems that harm them and shorten their lifespans. Instead, the people who benefit from the systems must make meaningful changes.

“For example, if you’re a White doctor, you should receive training about racism as a source of stress for Black men. That includes opening the door for Black male patients to talk about the stress and be treated for it,” she says.

Like health professionals who identify interpersonal violence by asking patients if they feel safe at home, doctors can be trained to do the same for racial-based stress. The care would include an official diagnosis, resources to lower the stress (that are covered by insurance), and hopefully, empathy and awareness from the provider.

As an activist-scholar, Dr. Alang believes her research must produce change that matters personally to the people she serves and in a larger community context. “I had a mentor early in my career who asked me how my research contributes to the liberation of our people,” she relates. “That question is my motivation. My research is experiential and critical, not objective. Lived experiences matter. Power matters.”

To redistribute power and resources, Dr. Alang encourages everyone to advocate for just systems via thoughtful and consistent voting at the local, state, and federal levels.

She suggests White people think about their interpersonal networks, including those they work with, spend time around, and talk to. “If you’re a White doctor with mostly White patients, you can’t reflect on the experiences of people who are harmed by racism because you’re not in a relationship with them,” she says.

From her research, Dr. Alang reminds everyone about the power of small gestures. In one study, a Black male research participant in a white healthcare facility felt more at ease when he saw a photo of Barack Obama hanging on the wall. Another participant had similar feelings thanks to a quote by Maya Angelou. Another heard Tupac’s music playing overhead in an all-white pharmacy.  “These small signs sent a powerful message: Your culture matters,” Dr. Alang explains. “Representation matters.”

So while people in positions of power fight to dismantle racist systems by rewriting government and institutional policies, reimagining community safety, and sponsoring and promoting public conversations and protests, ALL of us can support Black men’s health by advocating on their behalf, learning about their lives, and being in community with them.

“Racism is an overwhelming system — but we’re not powerless,” reminds Dr. Alang. “We can care about Black men’s health by interrupting a racist joke at work or stopping a negative stereotype at the dinner table. We can be a friend to young Black men in the neighborhood. We can care for one another and improve our emotional health.”


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