Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

The Silent Genocide in Black America

Race-based stress and negative health outcomes in U.S. Blacks
Karl Albrecht, Ph.D.
This post is a response to The Real Reason We Believe What We Believe by Karl Albrecht, Ph.D.

Forty-nine percent of Black men and 46% of Black women have some form of heart disease in the U.S. Once, medicine mistakenly attributed this to Sub-Saharan genetic predisposition for hypertension. However, a World Health Organization study compared blood pressures in Blacks from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.S. This study found the following gradient from lowest to highest: African, Caribbean, and American. A racial admixture study of blood pressure by Harvard geneticists, which studied over a thousand subjects, found no connection between Sub-Saharan African ancestry and hypertension. 

Medicine often cites diet as the source of Black America’s negative health out comes. Of course, a healthy diet is germane to cardiac health, but the southern diet and the Black diet are the same. Therefore, if diet were the sole source of Black America’s cardiac woes, southern Whites would experience the same rates of heart disease as Blacks do, and they do not. Stress acts first, and foremost, on the cardiovascular system.  Hence, it is reasonable to suspect the pathophysiology of race-based stress as an antecedent to elevated heart disease in Black America. This becomes extremely reasonable when you consider that more than three times as many college aged Black men are in jails than in college and the life expectancy for a Black man is seven years less than for any other group. Add the collapsing Black family and community structures and it becomes easy to see inherent sources of stress in Black America.  

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Watching America’s reaction to our president is very telling. On one end of the spectrum, you have Blacks and Whites who detest Obama because he does not have white skin, on the other you have Blacks and Whites who love him for the same reason. Despising or loving a president, for reasons besides politics is curious.  I suspect the reason this is occurring is three-fold: simian fear of darkness, symbolic interaction and pigmentocracy.

Simian Fear of Darkness

During the Pliocene Epoch (5.332 million to 1.806 million years ago) our simian ancestors, evolved from being insect eaters to fruit eaters. (In their defense, insects were meatier back then).  Going from insectivores to frugivores caused the selective sweep of retina-expressed alleles that resulted in color vision. Unfortunately, tri-chromatic vision comes at the expense of low light vision. This was problematic because our evolutionary ancestors primary predators, such a, hyenas and jackals, are color-blind nocturnal carnivores that possess excellent low-light vision. Hence, the fear and apprehension of darkness became a simian-wide survival instinct. The mammal brain consolidates and simplifies information whenever possible. For example, the fight-or-flight instinct is a consolidation and simplification of millions of lessons learned from encountering danger. Neuro-evolutionists theorize that the need to fear and mistrust darkness, in tandem with the brain’s need to consolidate and simplify information, is why dark and black became synonymous with bad and evil. 

Symbolic Interaction and Pigmentocracy

Superior symbol usage is the reason humans are the dominant species, e.g., written and spoken language. Written language exists only because we agree that certain graphic configurations are letters of a complete set that we agree is an alphabet. Specific groupings and arrangements of that alphabet are words that represent specific events and objects—because we agree they do. Thus, written, and spoken languages are consensual realities, i.e. reality determined by social subscription, opposed to intrinsic reality, as found in nature and in science.   

Jackie weds; Jackie mourns
Symbolic interaction is essential to human survival; imagine human history without language.  When we symbolically interact, the symbols are not important. It is what the symbols represent, such as math, language, art, etc., that is important.  Consider what a black dress and veil compared to a white dress and a veil means. Simian fear of darkness, and human dependency on symbolic interaction, predicated by the brain’s need to continuously consolidate, simplify, and reintegrate information is how darkness came to symbolically represent bad and evil in the evolution of human thought. 

For example, the darkest hour, dark personality, black hearted, black mood, dark horse, dark character, dark deeds, light spirit, light hearted, white knight, etc.  It is why most religions rejoice in white, and grieve in black. It is also the reason so many people have an irrational fear and mistrust of dark skin. In the old mammal brain, because of simian fear of darkness, the mantra is dark equals danger, therefore dark is bad. Fortunately, in the new thinking part of the brain, many humans can override these primitive instincts.  If that were not true, America would not have made the progress it has.  If it were consistently true we would not have race-based hate crimes.

The Pathophysiology of Race-Based Stress

We know when the brain perceives stress its first response is to elevate blood pressure in preparation for the eventuality of fight-or-flight.  The second response is to elevate blood sugars for quick energy. We also know that feeling constantly under siege is stressful. What does that tell you about being Black in terms of the uninterrupted assault on the Black psyche by language, art, and social customs by the symbolic representation of black and darkness? Beyond that, Blacks are humans first, and Black second, so these old brain responses do not exclude Blacks. This affects self-esteem and management of that is an added persistent stressor. Living in a world that instinctually fears you is perpetually stressful. 

Constant stress results in allostatic load, which is when the body’s protective mechanisms become destructive from over usage. Unfortunately, the stress response begins in the old mammal brain, and when it is enacted the thinking part of the brain is deliberately shutdown because the priority is to survive now, ask questions later.  More unfortunately, the old mammal brain, again for survival purposes, cannot distinguish between real and actual threat. Therefore, with the thinking brain disengaged, the old mammal brain responds to innocuous threats, like women holding their purses tighter when they see a Black man, and other subtle forms of racism, such as blacks being deemed as “acting White” or being an “Oreo” if they are articulate and educated. 

This constant perception of threat results in constant over usage of stress regulatory mechanisms, which causes allostatic load. Elevated blood pressure, which is vital in true fight-or-flight situations, becomes hypertension when chronically enabled by the old brain's response to symbolic psychic assaults. Likewise, consistently elevated glucose becomes diabetes. In addition, using food as a way of increasing dopamine to elevate mood often becomes compulsive overeating and substance abuse. The cardinal markers for allostatic load are cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Black Americans experience higher cardiovascular and metabolic disease, comparatively, than any other population on earth according to the World Health Organization.  This is not a coincidence, but a consequence of being Black in America. 

The human journey is not easy, and destiny can be difficult to embrace. For Black America, a silent genocide mounts within and presents as negative health outcomes because of the truly unholy alliance of simian fear of darkness, symbolic interaction and pigmentocracy. This is not an issue White Americaor Black America ordered from Amazon. Nor is it about White America  being out to destroy Black America or racial hatred in America necessarily.  This is about America circumnavigating a difficult juncture in our nation’s social history. We are in this place because we are not Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, South America, Australia, Canada, Central America or Mexico; we are all of them. In the hope for one world, one people, we must remember, we are Gettysburg.  Remain fabulous and phenomenal. 

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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