How hate harms us all
The national turmoil we are witnessing is not just a crisis of institutions, or politics, or a society at a crossroads. It is also a crisis of health.
Hate, such as the kind we witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, is like a disease, spreading among populations, undermining health in a manner eerily similar to that of a pathogen. When a society is infected by hate, it is not hard to see how it can affect our bodies and minds.
Being hated is stressful. It makes a person fear for her safety, resent her lack of respect, and worry about what the future holds for herself and her family. People who feel hated are more likely to experience major depression, and the fruits of hate — prejudice, discrimination, segregation, and interpersonal antagonism — sicken and kill Americans every day.
Consider racial segregation. Epidemiological research shows that segregation was linked to an estimated 176,000 deaths each year, and isolation segregation may contribute to higher rates of maternal mortality. Or take the experience of sexual minorities. LGBT youth living in Boston neighborhoods with higher levels of hate crimes involving assaults are significantly likelier to report thinking about suicide, or attempting it. They are also likelier to use marijuana.
Hate can be triggered by events, and has been shown to hurt the people we scapegoat in the wake of catastrophe. Arab-Americans living in this country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, for example, were likelier to report high levels of psychological stress, less happiness, and poorer health. Hate is even bad for the people doing the hating.
Yet hate, for all its menace, can be cured. The cure begins with acknowledging the problem. There are signs that America may be prepared to take this step.
The American College of Physicians has formally recognized the power of hate to undermine well-being. The college recently released a statement characterizing hate crimes as a public health issue. Dr. Jack Ende, the president of the group, said: “It is imperative that physicians, and all people, speak out against hate and hate crimes and against those who foster or perpetrate it.”
Meanwhile, the president of the United States continues to equivocate and suggest that the victims of hate crimes are as much to blame for the violence as the perpetrators. On this issue, Ende has shown to be the better leader. When health is threatened by hate, speaking out is as critical to well-being as vaccination in the face of plague. The widespread denunciation of President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to call out those who traffic in hate is an encouraging sign that our body politic still has an immune system, and that it is working to reject the infection that has seized us.
We must also come to grips with the causes of hate, just as we would the causes of disease. This means confronting our country’s fraught racial history. It is perhaps fitting that the recent violence in Charlottesville sprang from the desire of white supremacists to safeguard the legacy of Robert E. Lee, a man who did much to preserve the legacy of racism we now face.
Last Saturday, a small rally took place on Boston Common, billed as featuring speakers who espoused hate in Charlottesville. As historical irony would have it, the rally’s few dozen participants met in the shadow of another Civil War icon, a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. In 1863, the 54th became the first documented African-American regiment formed in the north, with Shaw as its leader. On July 18 of that year, more than 70 members of the regiment, including its commander, would perish in an attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The Southern rebels buried the white Shaw in a mass grave with his men — an intended insult. Yet this act of hate would become an enduring symbol of the better America that Shaw and his fellow soldiers died to build.
Just as they inspired hope in their time, the estimated 40,000 counter-protesters who filled Boston last weekend to demand an end to hate inspire hope in ours. In Michigan, there are further signs of hope. Despite a rise in hate groups in the state in recent years, the local reaction to Charlottesville has been encouraging, with mayors joining with community leaders in a pledge to fight extremism.
This is not the first time in our history we have faced hate. Yet I continue to hope that each encounter further reinforces our capacity to resist and transcend this rancor, as Shaw and his men did, with the conviction that someday the fever really will break, that America will arrive at an honest reckoning with its legacy of hate and finally come into its own as a truly healthy nation.
A version of this column appeared in the Boston Globe.
Sandro Galea is a professor and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. His book, “Healthier: Fifty thoughts on the foundations of population health,” was published in June.