Last week, the Cook County Department of Public Health released a new data portal called the Cook County Health Atlas — a searchable online database that provides 100 indicators of health — for over 120 Cook County suburbs.

The data on overall life expectancy in those suburbs puts the health gap between Black spaces and white spaces into stark relief.

For instance, life expectancy in the majority-Black suburbs of Bellwood and Maywood was 76 and 75, respectively. Life expectancy in the majority-white suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest was 80 and 85, respectively. And that’s based on data from 2010 to 2015 — before the COVID-19 pandemic.

For too long, too many educated people have chalked up racial health disparities to genetics, rendering the problem beyond anybody’s capacity to solve.

But factors like systemic racism, discrimination and bias, and wealth inequality — all operating across time and space — are the real culprits in creating the chasm in health outcomes between Blacks and whites, as a mountain of recent research shows.

That realization, however, isn’t new. In 1967, the Kerner Commission report famously explained, “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

What that also means is that white society is implicated in the existence of segregated Black spaces generally and their attendant disinvestment and disenfranchisement, which leads to toxic environments and resource deficiencies that harm Black bodies. The Kerner Commission’s observation is as true for the suburbs of Cook County as for the ghettos of Watts. Indeed, it rings true today, 55 years later.

But what that observation misses is the fact that Black bodies are often caught in a double-bind of toxicity — damned to living in segregated and under-developed spaces that make us sick or to “escaping” into white-dominated spaces that make us even sicker.

With respect to the latter hazard, renowned epidemiologist Sherman James developed a term in the 1980s called John Henryism — so named after the Black railroad hero of 19th century folklore who beat the odds and bested a steam-powered drill in a hammering contest but died from the exhaustion.

John Henryism is encapsulated in the saying, probably heard in every Black living room ever built, that we have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as whites just to be in the race. 

An article published earlier this year in Case Western Reserve University’s internal communications outlet The Daily elaborated on the phenomenon, highlighting a new study published late last year that examined “differences in the John Henryism hypothesis across subgroups of the Black diaspora in the U.S.”

Roughly 700 African Americans and Caribbean Blacks were surveyed about their health concerns, such as hypertension and blood pressure. The data was then “compared and measured against John Henryism and discrimination.”

More than 85% of the respondents reported using John Henryism, or working harder to cope, as a strategy to deal with discrimination. The researchers found “greater use of this coping strategy at high levels of discrimination, resulting in greater risk for hypertension,” Ann W. Nguyen, one of the study’s co-authors and a Case Western professor, said.

“But it’s the reverse in Caribbean Blacks,” she added. “This group actually has decreased risk for hypertension at higher levels of both John Henryism and discrimination.”

Nguyen and her colleagues suggested that varying levels of racial stigma may help explain the different outcomes. Blacks in the United States are much more stigmatized than Blacks in Caribbean countries with predominantly Black populations.

Nguyen’s work jibes with research I encountered in 2019 at a meeting of the Maywood-Proviso Rotary Club.

Dr. Lara Dugas, a researcher at Loyola University Chicago’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health in Maywood, said that since 1992, the university had been studying rates of hypertension, obesity and diabetes among Blacks in Maywood, and comparing those rates with Blacks in other countries.

Dr. Richard Cooper, chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, developed the study, called the International Collaborative Study of Hypertension in Blacks.

From 1992 to 1995, Cooper and other researchers studied 12,000 Blacks in seven countries in Africa, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and the United States. Maywood was Cooper’s U.S. research site.

Another Loyola researcher, Dr. Amy Luke, said at the time that Dr. Cooper’s “initial study on hypertension in the African diaspora really has changed the paradigm and has gotten people to think beyond the standard, ‘Oh, it must be genetics.’ We know now that it’s not just genetics.”

Other factors like an individual’s diet, a country’s distance from the sun (which determines naturally occurring levels of critical vitamin D), and the stress associated with racial discrimination contributed to the higher rate of hypertension among Blacks in Maywood.

As I reported at the time, the study showed that the rate of hypertension among Blacks in Nigeria was only 15 percent (the lowest among the seven research sites) while the rate of hypertension among Blacks in Maywood was nearly 35 percent (the highest prevalence among the research sites).

In 2009, Luke developed the Modeling the Epidemiological Transition Study, or METS, which basically picked up where Cooper left off. Luke’s study examined roughly 1,500 Blacks living in Ghana, South Africa, Jamaica, the Seychelles islands and the United States. Luke selected 500 individuals living in research sites in each of those countries. Maywood was Luke’s U.S. research site.

The METS data shows that, in 2010, rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among Blacks in Maywood were higher than any of the other places studied — even so-called “Third World” countries like Ghana and Jamaica.

Among Blacks living in Maywood, for instance, the rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension were 52 percent, 10 percent and 27 percent, respectively. In Ghana, the rates were 10 percent, 1 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

South Africa also had a high rate of hypertension — 22 percent. Not coincidentally, that’s the country where racial Apartheid was once dominant.

“More and more, we are learning how important our environments and experiences are to our health outcomes,” Dr. Wayne Giles, dean of the UIC School of Public Health, stated as an endorsement of the new Cook County Health Atlas.

While medical and public health professionals are playing catch up, more and more Black and Brown people are escaping — not to whiter pastures but to those Black and Brown so-called Third World countries where white supremacy isn’t as fatal. Nowadays, the most potent American Dream in the minds of many young Americans, particularly those of color, is to leave America.

Last year, I learned about Ashley Roberts, a 32-year-old Maywood native who attended the same elementary school I did. She, her husband and their two children moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, where Roberts said they are “happier, healthier, safer and saving tons of money.”

Living on the South Side of Chicago, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Caught in that double-bind of toxicity.

“My poor baby girl, when she hears what may sound like gunshots or fireworks, she gets on the floor immediately and we didn’t want to raise her like that,” Roberts said, adding that her family also had “a lot of bad experiences with the police,” including harassment.

“Anytime we would see Chicago cops, my baby girl would be so afraid,” she said.

The writer Mohamed Abdulkadir Ali, a Somalian refugee, has a similar story, which historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recounts in her new book, Not A Nation of Immigrants.

Ali, who trained as a lawyer, was “profiled and slammed against the wall by police” while in New York interviewing for a “prestigious position.”

“I am Somali, I am African, I am a refugee of war,” Ali said. “This is my history. But every time I go out my door in America a 400-year history of generational pain, anger, and trauma is foisted upon me. It has weighed down every step I’ve taken there. It made me stumble when I sought to stride.”

Ali left America and returned to Africa, where he found relative solace.

“I have come to have a lightness in my step, long forgotten, that has made me wonder: Is this the way white people feel in America?”

Apparently, one possible antidote to the toxic double-bind of hyper-segregation and John Henyrism is prescribed not by your average physician but by one Dr. Jordan Peele — get out.   


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