In The News: Uprisings sparked by George Floyd's murder - Racial Discrimination and Mental Health Deterioration

Thousands participant in San Francisco March on May 30, 2020. Photo: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters.

No wonder that, within three days, protests became an uprising, burning down a police station. Since the taking of Black lives by racist cops and vigilantes is so pervasive, protests immediately broke out in several cities from Los Angeles to New York, Memphis to Portland, Ore. By May 31, they had spread to over 70 cities.

Yet in the year of pandemic, the killing struck another chord: Black people are aware that their death rate from COVID-19, three times that of whites, is considered acceptable by this country’s leaders. They are aware that they disproportionately make up the “essential” workforce—people whose labor is demanded, though with less pay, worse benefits, fewer protections from infection, and now the administration is pushing to force them back to work without safe conditions by making them ineligible for unemployment or other benefits. They are aware that they disproportionately make up the “inessential” too, in the sense of the part of the working class that is left without jobs or the means to support themselves, those who are homeless or incarcerated, or will soon be forced into those conditions. They are aware that this institutionally racist society set them up to be more vulnerable to the disease in many ways, from exposure to pollution to housing and working conditions to discrimination in healthcare and to the fact that racism itself is a cause of disease.

At the same time, they are aware that this cannot only be blamed on the most flagrantly racist administration in memory. On the contrary, just in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, in 2015 and 2016 Jamar Clark and Philando Castile were murdered by police who were never punished. In those last two years of the Obama administration, over 2,000 people were killed by the police across the country—a rate of murder that continues to this day.


Everyone can see that the protests and uprisings are about George Floyd’s death, and at the same time that they go far beyond one killing. The police murders that have become more publicized in recent years are bad enough—however, they are the tip of the iceberg of an oppressive apparatus functioning as an integral part of a pervasively racist, exploitative society, that is expressed in everything from COVID-19 deaths and targeted harassment of people of color for alleged mask-wearing violations, to higher rates of unemployment, evictions and astronomical maternal death rates of Black mothers. That is why protests quickly spread to hundreds of cities, and even to some other countries, and why so many quickly turned into clashes with the hated police forces.

Participants in San Francisco March on May 30, 2020. Photo: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters.

The depth and breadth of explosive spontaneous revolt across the land is the expression of the rage that has been brewing over the many attacks and rollbacks, the callous exploitation and vicious repression aimed at the masses of Black America, Latinx and undocumented people, workers, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and young people. It is the cry of “Enough!” from people who reject the way things are and demand a truly human future for themselves, their families, their communities, their planet. The continuing police murders, the pandemic, the hurling of more than 40 million people into unemployment, poverty, threat of homelessness—all of these signs of this society’s collapse have been read and understood.

—Franklin Dmitryev, May 31, 2020

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Discrimination, defined as unfair treatment of different categories of people, is a life stressor with significant adverse effects on both physical and mental  health. Racial discrimination is a particular type of discrimination targeting members of racial and ethnic minorities such as Blacks . Blacks report higher levels of racial discrimination than other minority groups such as Hispanics.

Researchers have found that discrimination in general, and racial discrimination in particular, deteriorates mental health of individuals. It is proposed that discrimination may contribute to mental health problems in a unique way compared to general and non-specific stressors  This argument is mainly based on the observations that experiences and perceptions of racial discrimination better predict psychological distress compared with other types of stressors. In fact, discrimination influences several dimensions of mental health. More interestingly higher levels of discrimination may predict long-term adverse outcomes for mental health, while the converse may not be true. These findings suggest that racial discrimination may be a distinct contributor to the development of psychopathology in racial minority groups.

Racial discrimination may contribute to mental health problems through several potential mechanisms including: (1) heightened negative psychological stress response, (2) increased physiological stress response, (3) hypervigilance, and (4) increased participation in unhealthy behaviors. Racial discrimination is also associated with shorter telomere length, which is a marker of aging. Racial discrimination is associated with higher levels of nervousness and anger and higher likelihood of evaluating social interactions as harassing. Himmelstein et al. showed that vigilance coping strategies mediate the relationship between perceived discrimination and distress. In a study which included Blacks and Latinos, Brondolo et al. found an association between perceived discrimination and state and trait negative affect even after controlling for other characteristics such as hostility and socioeconomic status.

Gender may alter harmful effects of perceived discrimination. Among middle class Black adolescents, perceived racial discrimination better predicted substance use in males than females. In another study on a population of Latinos and Blacks, recent discrimination was associated with more smoking among Black men but not among women or Hispanics.

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