How racism-related stress makes young Black men more vulnerable to COVID

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

African Americans are about one and a half times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19, nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized, and nearly three times more likely to die of the virus. That’s all according to the CDC.

Washington Post health care reporter Akilah Johnson investigated the impact of the pandemic on an entire generation of young Black men in America for ProPublica.

She says Black men’s increased COVID exposure can be due to working outside the home during the pandemic, riding public transportation, living in muli-generational homes, and lacking access to health care. And once someone is infected and hospitalized, Johnson says there’s a higher comorbidity rate with other diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular and lung issues. 

Johnson points out that many of these conditions could be stress-related. 

“It's a very particular type of stress that stems from being Black and being Black men in America. We're all under stress in the pandemic. But this is a very particular type of stress that's related to racism.”

She says this type of stress is similar to what’s called John Henryism, coined by epidemiologist Dr. Sherman James. It’s based on the tale of John Henry, who manually blasted through mountainsides with a steam drill until he collapsed and died from exhaustion.

Johnson says this is often told as a legend of resilience. But there’s more to it. “What is quite often not talked about nearly as much is the other truth that is buried within that legend. It's that effort and the exertion of overcoming and striving to take on the machine [that] kills him in the end.” 

Leslie Lamar Parker and clothes to disarm people

According to Johnson, James hypothesizes that John Henrysim isn’t gender or class-specific because stress progressively transforms the body as it ages. 

“In striving to overcome these barriers, you have what's called weathering. … The stress begins to physically change the body, at the chromosomal level,” Johnson says. 

She uses the example of Leslie Lamar Parker, a Black man who died of COVID-19. Growing up in Minneapolis, Parker faced a lot of adversity: struggling in school, getting married and having a baby in college and dropping out, helping raise his younger cousins, and going back to school. At the same time, he was constantly vigilant about how he was perceived as a tall and large Black man in white spaces.

“It got to the point where he was so cognizant of that, that he would dress in what one of the researchers referred to as kind of like a non-threatening Black guy uniform,” Johnson says. “When he's moving through the world [he put on] clothes that would disarm people around him. He wore a lot of shirts that were conversation starters. He carried his SpongeBob backpack with him.”

Shorter life expectancy

Johnson says COVID-19 is hollowing out a generation of Black men across America. That’s because coronavirus is shortening life expectancy, according to researchers she spoke with. 

“Black men already have the shortest life expectancy of any American demographic, and COVID is taking years from people,” she says. “It should be particularly distressing for everybody. We are in the middle of a pandemic — almost a year out — that is continuing to wreak havoc on these communities of color who are bearing this desperate brunt of what's happening.”