Commentary: Is Our Preoccupation With Race Why We Have Hypertension?

No. Racism stalks us, not the other way around. 

Posted: 08/15/2013 05:20 PM EDT

It’s not a secret that African-Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure. We are 1.5 more times likely to suffer from "the silent killer,” we develop it earlier and have a more severe form of it than our white counterparts. 

But why is this the case?

Past studies show that lack of access to health care, low health literacy, obesity, education disparities, salt intake and African-Americans salt sensitivity might be related.

But a new study suggests that emotional stress, especially linked to racism, may be behind this racial health disparity. Researchers from John Hopkins found that African-Americans who are “preoccupied with race” have higher blood pressure compared to those who aren’t.

In the Medical Daily article, “African Americans Who Play ‘The Black Card’ Have Higher Blood Pressure: Does Obsessing Over Race Lead To Bad Health?”, Nsikan Akpan wrote that the study recruited 266 people, 62 percent of them being Black, and they asked each of them how often they thought about race.

Blacks who thought about racial issues on a consistent basis — whether it was once a week, once a month, or once a year — had significantly higher blood pressure than blacks who didn’t. This pattern was not observed between whites who were race-conscious and those who weren’t.

Overall, 50 percent of African Americans in the study were preoccupied with race, while only 20 percent of whites worried about their skin color.

Dr. Lisa Cooper, senior author of the study and who is also African-American, told Medical Daily, “A preoccupation with race among blacks leads to hyper-vigilance, a heightened awareness of their stigmatized status in society and a feeling that they need to watch their backs constantly.”

Now, I appreciate Cooper’s attempt to look at how racism impacts African-Americans’ mental health and the need for adequate coping skills. We all know that racism has a negative outcome for our health. But something about this study and how this article is framed (especially the nauseating title) doesn’t sit right with me.

First, racism isn't the only oppression that Blacks face — sexism, classism and homophobia are also issues that can impact out mental health. Second, are Blacks to blame for our high blood pressure because we have the audacity to understand our oppression and acknowledge it, let’s say, once a year?

Not to mention, what exactly does “playing the race card” and being “preoccupied with race” even mean? It's actually insulting. Are we really shocked that white people don’t think about race as much as we do? They have no real reason to think about it that much. 

Meanwhile, we have every reason to worry about it. Despite living in Post-Obama America and the hope that was supposed to come with that, we are constantly reminded of our reality: Trayvon Martin, Cece McDonald, Marissa Alexander, Oscar Grant, stop and frisk, employment discrimination, high unemployment rates, the War on Drugs, suppressing the vote and “everyday” racism.

But even in that, I want to be crystal clear: African-Americans do not have a preoccupation with race — racism has a preoccupation with us.

And no one is exempt. Even the lead researcher’s son has been traumatized. Frugivore wrote that Cooper said:

“It’s stressful for him to walk around thinking at anytime someone might think he’s dong something wrong just because of his race,” she says.“That’s just something he lives with. If you don’t live with it, maybe it’s hard to understand it. It’s something people often don’t want to talk about.”

But based off of the study's reasoning, if we talk about racism and how we feel about it, does that mean that we are “preoccupied” with it, therefore adding to our own stress? 

The study says we have to find better ways to cope, but what does that look like? Do we pretend it’s The Matrix and take the blue pill and live in utter denial of what’s happening to us? Or do we adopt the political ideologies of CNN’s Don Lemon or Bill Cosby who blame our demise to the fact that we are trifling?

Whatever the case, I’ll stick with working out, meditating and talking about oppression to deal with my stress and blood pressure, because my heightened consciousness of race isn’t going away nor is it the real problem here.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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