After 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed by an illegal NYPD chokehold on Staten Island in 2014, his daughter Erica cried out for police reform in America. Her dad's alleged offense—selling loose, untaxed cigarettes—fit into a pattern of law enforcement preying on communities of color for minor offenses, and Erica, like thousands of others, demanded accountability from police who seemed to occupy as much as they protected and served.
When Erica Garner died at just 27 this weekend after a heart attack and subsequent coma, a long-standing conversation about self-care in activist circles resurfaced. But those who know racism kills in this country can't be blamed for seeing another culprit here.
A few weeks after Eric Garner's killing, Michael Brown, 18 and unarmed, was shot dead by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, spurring nationwide protests among those weary of an unrelenting police brutality. The wait-and-let’s-see-what-the-justice-system-does approach that prevailed in 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s 2012 shooting death, where wannabe cop George Zimmerman got off scot-free, was over. The extrajudicial killing of Eric Garner was a crucial catalyst for the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, as people across the country chanted his final words, “I can’t breathe.”
Erica Garner's death was obviously more complicated—according to the New York Times, she had a heart attack stemming from asthma, a condition her father also struggled with. (I reached out to the Garner family for comment for this story but did not hear back prior to publication.) But experts and activists well-versed in the myriad ways race affects mortality in America were quick to cite the systemic shortening of black life in this country.
“When has racism not killed?” kihana miraya ross, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, wondered in an interview. “Whether that's in the form of outright murder as in the case of Erica Garner's father, or health related or even black-on-black crime that stems from racialized capitalism, racialized housing disparities, and the numerous traumas both individual and collective that come from existing as the antithesis to everything pure, clean, and white—being raced as black has always killed us.”
Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Garner in the fatal chokehold, was never charged in his homicide, and in fact remains on modified duty with the NYPD. But racism has a devastating impact on longevity for black people—especially black women—in America, even when cops aren't involved. Bridget Goosby, PhD., a sociologist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, specifically cited heart problems among low-income black women, and higher rates of obesity and diabetes for those women as a whole. And for middle-class black women, being tokenized in mostly white work spaces can create social isolation, where hitting a special kind of “glass ceiling” is linked to discrimination that opens the door to chronic disease and shorter life spans.
Lest anyone think this stuff is all in the heads of activists or social justice warriors, racism's harm to black lives has been well-documented at the highest levels. The Institute of Medicine affirmed as much with its 2002 report, “Unequal Treatment,” where a blue-ribbon panel of medical experts confirmed that while black and brown patients have unequal health outcomes, they also get unequal healthcare compared to whites, even when other factors, like insurance status, are equal.
Racist experiences are also linked to adult-onset asthma in black women, one Boston University study found in 2013. The more racism experienced by 38,000-plus black women studied from 1997 to 2011, the more incidences of adult-onset asthma, according to Black Women’s Health Study results published in the journal Chest.
“Racism is a significant stressor in the lives of African American women, and our results contribute to a growing body of evidence indicating that experiences of racism can have adverse effects on health,” Patricia Coogan, the professor and epidemiologist who led the study, said at the time.
Pamela Merritt, co-director of Reproaction, a reproductive justice organization, told me activists like Garner are particularly susceptible to toxic stress. “When you’re navigating the world as a black activist, you work daily confrontation with white supremacy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of oxygen for what liberals would call self-care. I prefer to call it ‘personal ecology.’"
Merritt found she needed to make some changes after attending a leadership training session in 2016. The overall feedback she got from white peers was they could tell she was stressed and riddled with anxiety.
“I shouldn’t have had to fake it,” Merritt, 44, said. “That is a factor we need to talk about because it is going to kill us. How many times have I been in a room with activists who haven’t been to the doctor in a year, gotten their blood pressure checked, or wished they could exercise more? There’s this freakish rhythmic cycle of resistance.”
Last week, Merritt got a mammogram and posted on social media that it was easy. “I wish I had tagged five people and said, ‘Do you want me to go with you? We need to do with health what we do with movement work, when we commit to march and take ten people with us.”
Goosby, well-versed in transgenerational effects of racism, pointed to birth disparities between black and white women, a phenomenon that hasn’t changed since Jim Crow, she said. The odds of low birth weight is 1.6 times larger for black babies than white babies, and preterm birth is 1.9 times larger even when factoring in social economic status.
A recent ProPublica series eloquently highlighted the impact of racism in pregnancy and childbirth for black women, who are as much as three times more likely to die from complications that arise in childbirth as whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“For much of American history, these types of disparities were largely blamed on blacks’ supposed innate susceptibility to illness—their “mass of imperfections,” as one doctor wrote in 1903—and their own behavior. But now many social scientists and medical researchers agree, the problem isn’t race but racism,” ProPublica reported.
Under the weight of all the evidence of how taxing prejudice is on the average black woman, we can start to make sense of why Erica Garner’s big, generous heart gave out. One way or another, racism, the toxic sludge of American hate, broke it.
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