Because of racism, the extra burden of caring for and worrying about our Black children, from conception through adulthood, takes its toll on us. Beneath the underlying causes that place us at greater risk for deaths from coronavirus lies the corrosive effect of racism on health that accumulates over time. Our hearts race too fast, our blood pressure stays too high, and our immune system is compromised, all because of having to be ever vigilant to the probability of having to confront racism.
Research is showing that the negative mental health effects of police violence on Black people as compared to White people result in Blacks experiencing more mental health days that last for months in the aftermath of unjustified police violence.
In our own study in metropolitan Atlanta, we found that Black pregnant women’s anticipating that one day their children would have a negative encounter with police was linked to signs of depression during pregnancy. In other words, even when children are in the womb, Black mothers worry about protecting them from racism, and that worry can build to the point of having negative consequences for their mental health.
Fear for the safety of our children just grows as they grow. On the first night of the protests in Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reached out to her son pleading for him to come home. For everyone to hear, she admitted that even though she was the mayor she would not be able to protect him.
Our children are out there. They are in their schools. They are in the parks; they are out there in the streets and highways. They are in their homes and jogging on the roads. Wherever they are, their lives are meaningless to those who without hesitation would kill them, merely because of the color of their skin.
As Black women navigate through everyday assaults from inequity, racism, and sexism, we make every attempt to shield our children. In the final moments of his life, George Floyd cried out for his mother. Hearing him say her name, I felt anguish knowing that if she were alive her warmth and caring for him was insufficient to protect him, or herself, from the consequences of entrenched racism that infiltrates every system of this society.
No doubt George endured pervasive racism throughout his life, and his life was taken by the most inhumane display of racism. He was buried next to his mother.
Certainly, there is work going on in Atlanta and elsewhere aimed at eliminating the inequities and racism on all fronts which jeopardizes the lives of mothers, fathers, children and families within communities. Organizations that are working toward this include the Center for Black Women’s Wellness, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, March of Dimes, and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, which are forging toward the goal of achieving birth equity for all mothers and babies.
Still, events of the last several months signal that, as a nation, we fall short of the destination of “liberty and justice for all.” In this moment, what is required is bold collective action for lasting changes steeped in equity and justice in health care, housing, education, policing, employment, and income.
We have been here before. We must ask will there ever be a time when Black people will no longer have to cry out?
Fleda Mask Jackson, Ph.D, is a scholar, educator and activist. She is president of Majaica LLC, a national research firm and think tank. Her work is aimed at advancing the well-being of Black children, families, and communities via methods informed by community-based, culturally sensitive research that can be translated into practice and policy. She has been a Professor of Applied Public Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and a visiting scholar in Psychology at Spelman College.