Windows and Mirrors - Weathering - Florence Sprague - July/August 2023

"The crimes of rape, and of assault and battery were felonies in the slavery era as they are today in any civil society. They were seen then as wrong, immoral, reprehensible, and worthy of the severest punishment. But the country allowed most any atrocity to be inflicted on the black body. Thus, twelve generations of African-Americans faced the ever-present danger of assault and battery or worse, every day of their lives during the quarter millennium of enslavement.”  Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, p. 153 

We have all seen the effects of weathering on the landscape, from the beauty of dramatically sculpted canyons to the terror of coastal homes teetering on undercut coastlines. The forces of wind and water are powerful, working relentlessly to modify the environment.

But what about the figurative wind and water of stress, fear, abuse and other human-made forces that lead to poorer health outcomes? This concept is not brand new, but it is more in the news today.

This spring, when I returned to Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, I also read “How ‘Weathering’ Contributes to Racial Health Disparities” by Alisha Haridasani Gupta, in the New York Times. [Gupta] Gupta brings light to the work of Dr. Arline Geronimus, a researcher at the University of Michigan, whose work centers on the “weathering” impacts of racism and discrimination on the health of Black Americans and other minorities. The two mesh.

Medical science has long known that stress can have detrimental impacts on health, and today the concept of social determinants of health is widely accepted. [See e.g. APA website or WebMD or get more technical at NIH article] While the correlations may at times be difficult to convert to absolutely provable causations, the data so often show a connection between the lived experiences of Black Americans−increased rate of strokes and hypertension, reduced immune system function, lower life expectancy−that it is clear that this must be addressed.

More than thirty years ago (1990), Dr. Geronimus, a white public health researcher, was interested in the high rate of infant mortality for Black babies. At the time, this was widely attributed to a high rate of teen pregnancy in many Black communities. Dr. Geronimus’ research revealed that the mortality rate was actually higher for the babies of slightly older Black mothers. She concluded that the longer one lived with the stresses of discrimination in the United States, the greater the risk to the babies.

This conclusion was attacked from the left and the right so harshly that she stopped attending conferences, but she did not stop studying, publishing dozens of papers and expanding the evidence of the negative effects of weathering beyond Black mothers.

She was not the only one to see the connection between the stresses of racism and poor health outcomes decades ago. In 1992, a Black epidemiologist, Dr. Camara Jones, demonstrated the link between racism and accelerated aging and high blood pressure. She was advised not to use the word racism when writing grant proposals to avoid being labeled “the racism lady.” She soon took her research in other directions.

We all feel weathered by the stresses of life, and we hear frequently these days of the negative weathering on the mental health of youth today from pandemic-related restrictions. But the depth of racism-related weathering is incomparable.