TheGrio Daily

Racism Is A Disease

Episode 94

“Racism takes not just a mental toll, not just a societal toll, not just an economic toll on the citizens of America but we have to bear a physical burden, it’s an actual weight that we have to carry.” The idea that racism is a disease is no longer just a metaphorical concept but instead now proven by medical science. Michael Harriot explains the research that began in the 1970’s that led to this conclusion.


[00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black podcast network Black Culture Amplified. 

Michael Harriot [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to another episode of theGrio Daily. Today we’re going to be talking about racism. Like, you know, there’s a growing mountain of research that shows that racism is really a disease. And we used to say that metaphorically, but now there’s actual medical proof that, like, it increases, you know, racism can be detected in something that’s called telomeres and it affects your heart, your blood pressure. And it’s not just stress. It’s a specific thing that racism does to your body. And like, I’m not going to get into it because, like, one of my precepts in life is that I don’t really talk a lot about things that I don’t know about. So. But we know that, like, we can find all kinds of articles that show us that racism is a disease. The interesting thing is how we found out about this, because we know this since the 1970s and how we found out about it is through a man called Sherman James. Sherman James is an epidemiologist at Duke University, and he discovered this thing back then in the 1970s called John Henryism. And what John Henryism is, is the preponderance or the the effort that Black people give out to outwork racism. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:49] So, you know, there’s this belief that, you know, you can achieve anything through hard work and education. You know, Sherman is kind of proof of that, right? He grew up in this small town called Hartsville, South Carolina, down the street from me. And he worked his way up to becoming. A medical doctor, an epidemiologist, a professor at Duke University. But he was doing the study in the 1970s. And he was basically interviewing people. It wasn’t really centered on racism, but he met this man. And what happened was he just started focusing the story on this man and he created this name for this term, for this disease that affected this man. And he called it John Henryism. Now, a lot of people think that John Henryism refers to the old tale. It’s a story, a legend about a man named John Henry. If you don’t know, the story of John Henry was supposedly a railroad broker. He was the strongest, biggest railroad worker. And he bit in some versions of the story. He made a bet and some versions of the story he was incarcerated. They told him that he could be free if he could beat the train. It was new technology that they were using to bore a hole through the mountain. And John Henry grabbed a sledgehammer and he started whacking at the mountain as the train tried to whack a tunnel through the mountains. And John Henry beat the train and drove a hole in a mountain before a train filled with dynamite could. And that’s why John Henry is a legend. Because he died as soon as he reached the other side of that mountain. Right. There’s a song. Maybe we can get the rights of the song. I don’t know. 

[00:04:00] Jon Henry’s Mammy had about a dozen babies, John Henry’s Pappy broke jail about a dozen times. 

Michael Harriot [00:04:11] But, most people thought that Sherman James’s research was named after the legend of John Henry, but no. Sherman James actually met a man named John Henry, who was a Black man, and he only had, like, a second grade education. And John Henry worked so hard and he saved his money and he would buy land with his money as soon as he would save it. And by the age of 40, John Henry, the real John Henry, owned 75 acres in rural North Carolina. But of course, that sounds like a success story. But by the time he was 50. John Henry died. When he met Sherman James he had heart disease, like hypertension, arthritis, arteriosclerosis. Try to say that fast three times. An ulcer, a peptic ulcer. So, like, literally outworking racism had wrecked his body and wrecked his body so bad that when Sherman James met him, the way that Sherman James met him was that like he was ran around looking for people who looked like they worked hard. He found John Henry because John Henry, by the time he reached his fifties, had to have 40% of his stomach removed from that peptic ulcer. What a peptic ulcer is, is that when your body produces stress, it produces an acid, peptic acid that eats away at the lining of your stomach. It had eaten 40% of his stomach, which he had to have removed. 

Michael Harriot [00:06:04] So John Henry is a real person. And the reason we know about John Henryism is not because of the legend that some white country singers used to sing. It’s because of a man from South Carolina who lived down the street from me named Sherman James. And that’s why we are discovering now that racism takes not just a mental toll, not just a societal toll, not just an economic toll on the citizens of America, but we have to bear a physical burden. It’s an actual weight that we have to carry. That’s why we have to dismantle it. And that’s why we have to subscribe to this podcast. That’s why you have to download that video app. And that’s why you have to tell a friend. And of course, we’ll leave like we do every episode with the saying from Black America. And today’s saying comes from John Henry. And it’s. A Black person has to work twice as hard to get half as far as a white man. Even if you’re going through a mountain. We’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily. If you liked what you heard, please give us a five star review. Download theGrio app. Subscribe to the show and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, suggestions and compliments to podcasts at theGrio dot com. 

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