Systemic Racism Takes a Toll on BIPOC Mental Health

Black man crying while being consoled in group therapy


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What Is Systemic Racism?

Systemic racism refers to the social structures, policies, and institutions that serve to oppress people of color. Also known as structural or institutional racism, systemic racism in the United States predates the country’s founding in 1776.

When European colonists settled in what is now the U.S., declared ownership of the land that Native Americans inhabited, and enslaved African Americans for generations, systemic racism was at play.

The policies instituted by the settler colonists centuries ago continue to affect BIPOC today. Systemic racism not only puts marginalized groups at a socioeconomic disadvantage but it also takes a toll on their mental health. 

Slavery and Racism

The history of the United States has led Americans on both sides of the political aisle to cite racism as the nation’s original sin.

In 2017, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Black Republican, told CBS News, "We forget in the United States how long it has taken us to make 'We the People' mean people like me. And indeed, I do think that America was born with a birth defect; it was slavery.”

Rice went on to say that the founding of America was not really complete until the Civil Rights movement led to the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation until the 1960s. Only then could African American people like her father exercise their full rights as a citizen by voting.

The year before Rice’s comments, Michelle Obama delivered her last Democratic National Convention speech as First Lady. Reflecting on her time in the White House, Obama said that she “wake[s] up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” alluding to the fact that enslaved African Americans constructed the White House, which was built during the 1790s and again after the War of 1812.

U.S. presidents are widely known as the “leaders of the free world,” even as they live in a house built by people that were held in bondage. In fact, 12 U.S. presidents enslaved African Americans, making the sole Black First Lady’s comments about the history of the White House all the more compelling.

Racism Affects Mental and Physical Health

The nation’s legacy of slavery and colonization can be linked to the status of African Americans and Native Americans today.

Having historically been uprooted from their land, separated from family members, forced to culturally assimilate, and denied their humanity under policies that the federal government enacted, Black and Indigenous peoples now face high rates of poverty, illness, and police violence, among other problems.

The employment, medical, and criminal justice systems contribute to debilitating outcomes and have adverse psychological effects on people of color, with numerous research studies finding a connection to systemic racism and poor mental health.

Systemic Racism and Poor Mental Health

A person of color doesn’t have to directly experience racism to suffer from mental health problems. Just witnessing or hearing about racism and race-based violence can negatively impact mental health.

The Impact of George Floyd's Murder on BIPOC Communities

After footage of the May 25, 2020 police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd was widely circulated in the news, reports of poorer mental health spiked.

Anxiety and depression in the Black, Asian, and Native American communities rose. Other American groups such as whites and Hispanics, however, did not experience the same adverse mental health effects.

African Americans

Following Floyd's murder, anxiety and depression within the Black community rose dramatically, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

Additionally, in the week after the video of Floyd’s killing became public, the percentage of African Americans with clinical signs of anxiety or depression rose from 36% to 41%, which represents an additional 1.4 million people with these symptoms.

Witnessing this traumatic event may have led African Americans to relive their own experiences of racial trauma and revived concerns about the system of policing in the United States.

Racism in policing has affected African Americans for generations, and the criminalization of Black people dates back to enslavement when slave patrols pursued runaways for trying to escape their bondage. 

Black youth also suffer mental health problems as a result of systemic racism, particularly in institutions like schools.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that during a two-week period, African American teens experienced some form of racist behavior—including bullying, physical assaults, online insults, and the subtle racist remarks and actions known as microaggressions—at least five times per day on average.

The researchers also asked these youth about depression and found a worsening of symptoms in the teens who experienced more incidents of discrimination. Depression symptoms can include trouble sleeping, concentrating, and disinterest in the activities they used to enjoy.

Asian Americans

Asian Americans also had more anxiety and depression symptoms in the period after Floyd’s killing. Signs of these mental health disorders jumped from 28% to 34% among this demographic, which represents an increase of approximately 800,000 people.

Asian Americans may have been more distressed by Floyd’s killing and racism in general during this period because reports of anti-Asian hate crimes increased after the novel coronavirus spread in the U.S.

Native Americans

Native Americans make up just 1.3% of the U.S. population , but they comprise a disproportionate percentage of Americans facing police violence. They are killed by police at higher rates than any other racial group, including African Americans.

According to a CNN analysis of data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, “For every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died annually from 1999 to 2015 as a result of a legal intervention."

The effects of systemic oppression in Native communities contribute to their mental health problems as well. Nine percent of Native Americans over age 18 have a concurrent mental illness and substance use disorder, which is nearly three times the rate of the general population, the American Psychiatric Association found.

Moreover, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Indigenous peoples ages 10 to 34, and Indigenous children and adolescents have higher rates of depression than any other racial group. 

Fighting Systemic Racism

Systemic racism has existed in the United States since the country’s founding, meaning that it’s unlikely that any one individual can effectively challenge it. The old adage that there is strength in numbers applies in this context.

From the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century and the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, having the masses collectively fight an institution—be it slavery, policing, or education—has proven to make a difference.

After the police killing of George Floyd, protesters across the country marched day after day and the Minneapolis City Council voted shortly afterward to repeal the requirement for a police department from the city charter. The move had a ripple effect, with cities such as Los Angeles rerouting $150 million it had earmarked for the police to other agencies. 

Fighting institutional racism can involve:

  • Writing petitions
  • Letter-writing campaigns
  • Contacting elected officials
  • Organizing sit-ins
  • Marching
  • Protesting
  • Joining a political group

It’s important that these endeavors have group support because a large number of activists attract the news media and are harder to ignore than a single individual taking part in a protest.

Contribute to Change in Your Community

People can also look directly at their sphere of influence to discover how to make a difference. You can examine the inequities within your community—your school, workplace, or another setting—to learn which actions to take.

At School

If the students most likely to be suspended or expelled from your school are Black and Brown, for example, write about it in your school newspaper, raise the issue with a club on campus, or speak to the administration or school board about this disparity.

In the Workplace

If you address an issue at work, there is a possibility of retaliation, but that doesn’t mean you have no rights. When COVID-19 spread across the U.S., workers spoke out about company policies that put them at risk, demanded hazard pay for working during a pandemic, and continued to fight for fair wages.

Many of these workers were people of color in low-paying jobs, and some of them did face retribution, but they drew attention to the workplace changes that desperately needed to be made.

Self-Care Is Important

Countering systemic racism isn’t just about workplace strikes and marches in the streets. For BIPOC particularly, it involves self-care, which the late feminist writer Audre Lorde declared “is not self-indulgence” but “self-preservation.” Lorde pointed out that preserving one self in a society hostile to one’s existence “is an act of political warfare.”

So, know that eating and sleeping well, leaving toxic work environments and relationships, exercising, getting medical checkups and going to therapy are all acts of resistance.

But, of course, many people lack the resources to do these things, so it's important to define self-care in a way that best suits your needs and circumstances. 

Key Takeaways

  • Systemic racism refers to the structures, institutions, and policies in society that disadvantage people of color. 
  • Systemic racism in the U.S. stems from the colonization of the country, removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands, and the enslavement of African Americans. 
  • Institutions that carry out systemic racism include the criminal justice, healthcare, education, and employment sectors.
  • Researchers have repeatedly found links between systemic racism and adverse mental health outcomes.
  • African Americans and Asian Americans experienced more depression and anxiety after footage of George Floyd’s killing went public.
  • Prioritizing self-care, if possible, can help in the wake of systemic racism.

A Word From Verywell

Systemic racism negatively impacts the physical and mental well being of BIPOC communities. Research has shown that racism leads to a rise in anxiety and depression.

Anti-racism work cannot be done alone, and progress, at times, can be very slow so, it's completely understandable if you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, and angry.

While it's important to speak up and use your voice if you or someone else is experiencing racism, it's also important to remember that in your fight for social change that you take time to recover and rest by seeking out a support network, reaching out to a therapist, or taking some time for yourself.

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Article Sources
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