Thoughts on wellness and equality on the Fourth of July.
The Fourth of July — like most other things these days — is going to be a little different this year. As coronavirus cases surge across the United States following too-rapid reopenings, the need for social distancing makes our usual backyard barbecues and beachside adventures difficult, if not impossible. Meanwhile, the light shows came early in cities across the United States this June, as a mixture of pent-up quarantine frustrations, youthful exuberance, and defiance of government regulations led to an early fireworks boom (and that’s if you don’t believe the conspiracy theories).
The most significant reason this Fourth of July is different, however, is visible across the United States. Since late May, following George Floyd’s extrajudicial killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, a Black-led uprising against institutional racism has swept through America’s streets. This uprising has sent shockwaves even louder than the fireworks’ booms, shaking up everything from the halls of government to the boardrooms of big business to everyday residents’ hearts and minds.
The uprising has also made many Americans, especially white and racially privileged Americans who may not have been accountable for racial injustice previously, grapple with the violent foundations of U.S. democracy. The current uprising — and the racist, anti-Black police brutality, and vastly unequal public health system that instigated it — reveals that racism, gender inequality, and economic exploitation aren’t flaws in the American system: they were part of that system’s founding.
If we care about the mental health and overall well-being of our population as a whole, we must take this Independence Day to understand the fatal inequalities baked into American democracy — and understand that true physical, mental, and spiritual well-being requires liberation for all.
The Pandemic Reveals the Effects of Genocide Against Indigenous Americans
To understand the roots of public health disparities — including mental health disparities — in the United States, we must begin with the country’s founding. Almost three hundred years before the July 4, 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, the United States, as we now know it, began with an act of genocide against indigenous people. The legacy of these acts of horrific violence persist in public health disparities for Native Americans today.
Christopher Columbus was not, as many of us are taught in history books, the first person to “discover” the American continent. That honor goes to indigenous Americans, many of whom believe they were created with the American landmass. Archaeological evidence indicates indigenous Americans migrated by land and sea from Asia in waves starting as many as 40,000 years ago. Viking explorers also visited the Americas centuries before Columbus.
Columbus’s arrival on Hispaniola in 1492 was, quite simply, the beginning of a genocide against Native American people whose legacy is visible today. Columbus himself enslaved, tortured, and murdered indigneous Taíno people in the Caribbean. This is why indigenous people and activists have advocated for the tearing down of Columbus statues across the United States. Slowly, and now more rapidly, we’re starting to see those statues topple.
Columbus’s crew, and subsequent crews of European sailors and explorers, also exposed Native people to diseases like smallpox, to which they held no immunity. According to the most recent estimates, of the 60 million people who inhabited the Americas in 1492, 56 million people — 90% of the continents’ pre-Columbian population — had succumbed to European violence or viruses by the 1600s. Euro-American genocide against Native people continued for hundreds of years as white settlers pushed West, including violent wars, brutal instances of forced resettlement — like that of Cherokee people along the Trail of Tears — and the U.S. government’s 20th-century forced sterilization of Native American women. White settlers often used sexual violence against Native American women as a brutal tool of repression. We see continued encroachment on indigneous American lives in the imposition of oil pipelines through Native land.
Because of the devastating legacy left by European diseases, the coronavirus pandemic holds a particularly traumatic resonance for many indigenous people. Native American reservations have coronavirus infection rates up to 10 times that of surrounding states. This is partly due to the ongoing health disparities colonization has created among Native people, who disproportionately lack access to running water and nourishing food, and thus suffer high rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes. The trauma of colonization, as well as colonization’s legacy of material poverty, have led to elevated rates of suicidality and gender-based violence, particularly against Native women.
Racist Police Violence Is a Brutal Legacy of Slavery
In light of the uprisings, this Independence Day is also an opportunity for white Americans especially to consider the historical limits of the freedom and equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. As debates continue over which historical statues — including those of the Founding Fathers — ought to be taken down, and which ought to remain standing, it’s vital to contend with the foundational role of slavery in American society.
In light of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, it’s also important to acknowledge that the legacy of slavery persists in racist police violence and healthcare discrimination against Black Americans.
At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, slavery had already persisted in the colonies for at least 150 years. While 1619, the year a Portuguese ship brought around 20 enslaved African people to Jamestown, Virginia, is popularly cited as the origins of slavery in the United States, Europeans had benefited from the forced labor of enslaved African and indigenous people since the origins of colonization. As they signed a Declaration stating that “all men are created equal,” forty-one of the 56 men (and they were all white men) who founded the United States owned and directly profited from the labor of enslaved human beings. Slavery also involved systematic white sexual violence against enslaved Black women, leading to a persistent legacy of racialized, gender-based violence.
In contrast to the myth of Northern racial innocence, slavery undergirded the economies of both the Northern and Southern colonies. Northern merchants and, later, industrial cotton millers directly benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans in the plantation South. The racial wealth disparities resulting from 300-plus years of enslavement, 100 years of Jim Crow, and subsequent decades of disproportionate incarceration, economic exploitation, and housing and workplace discrimination structure the American economy to this day.
Racism’s impact on physical health
Both the coronavirus pandemic and the upsurge in public anger against racist police killings of Black Americans demonstrate that the legacy of this brutal institution is far from over. In the United States as a whole, Black Americans are 2.3 times more likely to die of the coronavirus than white or Asian Americans. This is particularly stark in Washington D.C., where Black Americans are dying of the virus at six times the rate of their white counterparts, and in Kansas and Wisconsin, where Black Americans are 5 times more likely to die of the virus. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, where the uprisings began, police are seven times more likely to use force against Black Americans than against their white counterparts.
As Dr. Sabrina Strings, an associate professor in sociology at the University of California at Irvine, writes in a New York Times op-ed entitled “It’s not obesity. It’s slavery,” the reason for these disparities is starkly historical. “The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy,” she writes. “It set in motion black people’s diminished access to healthy foods, safe working conditions, medical treatment and a host of other social inequities that negatively impact health.”
Racism’s impact on mental health
These disparities also have a profoundly negative impact on Black Americans’ mental health, making Black Americans 20% more likely than white Americans to experience mental illness. The trauma of the pandemic and of police brutality, an omnipresent threat for Black Americans currently exacerbated by harsh crackdowns on protest, have had a stark impact on the mental health of Americans of color. “The mental health of my community, with all these different traumas, is falling apart,” Camesha L. Jones, LCSW, founder of the Black-women-led Sista Afya community mental wellness group, told Talkspace.
True Well-being Requires Freedom From Oppression
We must understand that U.S. residents’ current health, both physical and mental, is intimately linked to the inequalities present at the founding of our country. The Declaration of Independence is a hypocritical document. It talks of freedom, yet was written by slave owners. Yet it is undoubtedly true in its assertion that every single human being is inherently equal, and has an inalienable right to life and liberty — or, perhaps more accurately, liberation.
The social, political, and economic change necessary to ensure these values requires much more than removing statues, though that’s an important start. For many Black activists and thinkers, it requires a massive redistribution of resources, through, for example, reparations. For many leaders of the current movement against systemic anti-Black racism, change requires the abolition of the police and the prison system.
We can only assure that people’s inalienable right to live lives of wellness and dignity are protected when we understand, confront, and undo the historical roots of inequality. To face the United States’ violent history is not to declare the future hopeless; it’s instead to place hope in a future that departs dramatically from this violent past and present.