For Black Professionals, Secondhand Racism Is an Unending Stress
In the course of their work, black lawyers and journalists are forced to confront the ugliest examples of our nation's racial inequity.
Art by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
“Man the fuck up!” I told myself, staring at my reflection in the mirror of a men’s bathroom at the Kings County Supreme Criminal Court in Brooklyn.
The date was November 6, my 35th birthday. But I wasn’t in any mood to celebrate, because I’d just seen Victor Dempsey crying like a baby.
On July 4, 2016, Dempsey’s older brother, Delrawn Small, was fatally shot during a road-rage encounter in Brooklyn with NYPD officer Wayne Isaacs. Small was unarmed during the altercation. Dempsey had been weeping in the courtroom because 12 Brooklyn jurors, five of whom were black, had just acquitted Isaacs of murder and manslaughter charges.
I wasn’t surprised Isaacs walked. Intellectually, I know it’s extremely rare for officers to be charged with a crime for fatal civilian encounter; it’s even rarer to see a conviction. That tends to be true regardless of whether the person the cop killed is unarmed, underage, or in wheelchair. But despite everything I knew, hearing the result of Isaacs’s trial still sent me into momentary shock.
In my eyes, this was another glaring case of the institutional racism that inordinately affects black people. It didn’t matter that several of the jurors or the police officer were black. They all were role players in a judicial system set up to protect police officers who disproportionately target, abuse, and kill black people.
But the lethal impact of institutional racism doesn’t just stop with policing. The harsh reality of American life for black people infects our health in insidious, covert ways.
“When you start to worry about something, whether that's race or something else, then that initiates a biological stress response,” Berkeley School of Public Health researcher Amani M. Nuru-Jeter told NPR in November. “Prolonged elevation [and] circulation of the stress hormones in our bodies can be very toxic...It just gets us really out of whack and leaves us susceptible to a bunch of poor health outcomes."
Black journalists like myself who cover social justice beats experience that toxic stress like second-hand smoke. It hits me every time I write another story on extrajudicial murder, or police misconduct, or a Trayvon Martin Halloween costume. I certainly felt its pangs when I heard the “not guilty” verdict in that Brooklyn courthouse.
New York Daily News reporter Christina Carrega shared my feelings of frustration and despondency at the Isaacs trial. The 32-year-old veteran court reporter was sitting in front of me, documenting the case when Small’s family erupted in anguish and anger.
“The wailing of Small’s sister, Victoria Davis, hit the back of my throat and caused my hand to shake,” Carrega recalled to me.
Later that night, Carrega did her usual post-work routine to cope with the pain: She smoked a Black & Mild on the balcony of her Manhattan apartment.
“That’s my way of dealing with it,” Carrega said with a laugh. “I have a bar in my apartment, but I don’t even touch the alcohol because I feel like that could easily become a bad habit.”
Mother Jones scribe Jamilah King has a different approach. “I allow myself to binge on episodes of Blackish or Living Single,” she told me. “I cherish my friends who make me laugh and can sit with me in silence.”
King was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, where Mario Woods was killed by police in December 2015. She detailed the aftermath of the tragedy for Mic.com.
King didn’t know Woods, but they were both 80s babies and had mutual friends. And while covering his story, she realized they were also distant relatives.
“I struggled with reporting on his life and being part of a media that his family had grown to distrust,” King recalled. “His death made me understand that the stakes are much higher for black reporters who do this work. That’s a huge responsibility. It’s also a privilege.”
Dallas civil rights attorney Lee Merritt’s burden is even heavier than many journalists’.
The 34-year-old is the last hope for justice for many black families. For example, he currently represents the parents of Jordan Edwards, the unarmed black Texas teen who was fatally shot in the head by a Balch Springs police officer on April 29.
While Merritt’s mission in life is to help families like Edwards’s seek justice, the work has taken a great toll on him. “Before I got into this line of work, I was really into fitness, leisure reading,” Merritt told me. “Now I have high blood pressure. At 34, that’s kind of a big deal.”
Merritt’s prominence in the civil rights community has made him a highly sought after attorney when police are accused of brutalizing or extralegally killing black people. Being there so often for other people of color—up to 15 hours a day—often prevented Merritt from being there for his ex-wife. The couple’s six-year marriage ended in divorce in 2015.
“My work didn’t allow me to focus on home the way she anticipated or expected,” the father of four said.
In 2015, Merritt founded the American Black Cross charity initiative, in part, because helping folks like needy Hurricane Harvey victims offers more instant gratification than waiting years for police-related court cases to play out. But outlets like this come with racially-charged stresses as well.
“We get a lot of hate and hostility from conservatives and people who for whatever reason don’t appreciate our work,” Merritt said. “But the Black Cross allows us to go out and do things directly. It’s almost like a built in vacation. It is work, but it’s gratifying work.”
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Due to the rise of racial tensions in recent years, journalists from all walks of life are forced to address these issues in their reporting. Fortune Magazine senior editor Ellen McGirt covered personal finances for two decades before her editorial team asked her to write about race and diversity in the businessworld beginning in 2015.
McGirt’s first major story, on what prevents black Americans from becoming executives, ended up with her being hospitalized for two days.
“I had a massive stomach attack,” McGirt recalled. “It was halfway through the assignment, it became this sort of soul crushing, yet exhilarating exercise of reporting. I talked to several black men who were very different from each other about what it’s like being a black man. It wasn’t until later that I realized the enormity of the question.”
Her story, “Leading While Black: Why Race and Culture Matter in the C-suite” was so popular, Fortune asked her to continue writing a daily email newsletter on race and diversity in the workplace titled raceAhead.
McGirt said the steady stream headlines of about tragedies like the police massacre in Dallas last year, debates over confederate statues, the Trump presidency, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, have made talking about race at work a huge issue in the corporate world.
“One of the things I was not prepared for as a business reporter was actually litigating the personality of Robert E. Lee,” McGirt said, referencing her November 1 column responding to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s defense of the oft-excused Confederate general. “I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t been in the hospital for two years,” she added, jokingly.
At times, the intractable nature of American racism can sometimes be too much for the people I spoke with to want to carry on in their work.
At one point in 2016, McGirt contemplated quitting her column.
“I had viewed so many actual videos of police violence that I said, ‘I don’t think I can continue,’” she told me. “Nothing in my background had trained me for this. At that point, I did everything I could to make sure I’m as healthy as I could possibly be.”
To ward off her stress, McGirt took up healthy exercise habits, like hiking through the scenic terrain of the parks near her St. Louis, Missouri home.
“I find the only thing that really breaks it for me is moving,” she said. “I do yoga and pilates… Moving is essential.”
After my moment in that Brooklyn courthouse in November, I’m beginning to realize a little more routine cardio is probably not a bad idea.
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