Even if Mr. Zerai-Misgun and his colleague were never directly physically harmed, the experience probably took a toll on their bodies. Perceptions of discrimination like those the officers experienced, as well as those that are less direct, may make us sick. And in the current political environment, with its high-profile expressions of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and xenophobia, along with widely covered acts of hate and bigotry, countless Americans are at risk of this type of harm.
Take Mr. Zerai-Misgun as an example. Chances are, in reaction to each instance of perceived discrimination, he had a stress response. His blood pressure increased, his heart rate went up, and his brain sent a signal to release cortisol. We know this because in 2008, researchers studied the effects of discrimination on blood pressure. Black and Latino study participants recorded their interactions with perceived racism and were outfitted with blood pressure monitors. The results were striking. While blood pressure normally dips at night, those who said they’d experienced racism were more likely to have blood pressure that did not — and this has been strongly linked to increased mortality. Over time, this high blood pressure hardens our arteries, increasing the risk of a clot forming in our hearts or brains.