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Between the Lines: The Cost of Discrimination

A civil rights conference in Springfield explores the physical toll social injustice takes on its victims.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

How do stress and trauma affect our physical health?

Quite a lot, according to long-term research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente.

The Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, study surveyed more than 17,000 people, asking them about family dysfunction or mistreatment in their childhood and then comparing those results to participants’ physical records. The results: the more stressful experiences someone has as a child, the more likely they are to experience a range of health problems later on, including drug and alcohol abuse, liver disease, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, and heart and pulmonary disease.

Those results grabbed the attention of John Fisher, who, in addition to his work as a fair housing counselor for the housing assistance organization HAPHousing, has a side interest in neuroscience. And it raised a question for him: “What about discrimination?” he wondered. “Would that affect [physical health]?”

Fisher will present a talk, “The Physical Cost of Discrimination,” at the annual Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference, to be held next week in downtown Springfield. The conference, which is put together by HAP, the Mass. Fair Housing Center, the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, was initially conceived to address housing matters but has expanded its focus to look at broader issues of discrimination.

This year’s conference marks the 45th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in home sales or rentals based on race, religion, sex, disability and family status, and the two-day schedule includes a “Fair Housing 101” workshop as well as a workshop on fair lending and the foreclosure crisis.

But the schedule also includes workshops on employment discrimination, veterans’ rights, civil rights in schools, hate crimes, LGBT rights and reform of the criminal records laws, among other topics.

Fisher’s workshop, which closes the conference, pulls together research that links the stress of racism and discrimination to higher rates of health problems among African-Americans—a connection, he noted, that doesn’t apply to black people in Africa and the Caribbean, suggesting that genetics are not to blame.

Those findings, he added, raise questions about whether other groups that have experienced discrimination, such as gay people, also pay a physical cost.

The conference’s keynote speaker will be James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, and 2005’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, which looked at the ways communities around the country have used laws and customs to keep out racial and ethnic minorities. Other speakers include Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, the first woman and first Hispanic person to hold that position. (She succeeded Michael Sullivan, now a Republican candidate in the special election to fill John Kerry’s U.S. Senate seat.)

The conference, Fisher said, is open to anyone interested in the issue of discrimination, including community groups, public employees, healthcare providers, law enforcement professionals—“any group that’s really interested in some of the things that used to be very important in this country but perhaps are getting ignored, now that all we’re talking about is cutting taxes,” he said.

One of Fisher’s hopes is that the conference will make people aware that even in this so-called post-racial era, when the country has an African-American president and Massachusetts has an African-American governor, discrimination still exists, in numerous arenas and in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One example he offered to illustrate the point: a photo he snapped a few months ago of a stop sign along Route 5 in West Springfield. Under the word “stop,” someone had spray-painted the slur “coons.”

“I hope [attendees] at least go away being more aware of the fact that there is a problem, it’s an ongoing problem, and that informs whatever they do,” he said. “This isn’t something … where we’re trying to stoke up people to storm the Bastille. It’s: ‘Hey, look, guys, in your every day as a healthcare person, as a municipal official, as a school teacher, there is still an undercurrent of racism you run into, sometimes in funny ways.’”

The Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference takes place on April 11 and 12 at the Springfield Marriott. A schedule and registration information can be found at www.2013conference.massfairhousing.org.•

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