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Excerpted From: Courtney Lauren Anderson, Activismitis, 14 Northeastern University Law Review 185 (February 2022) (340 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CourtneyLaurenAndersonThis article describes landmark activism in the United States and illustrates how, despite the positive consequences that can arise from such advocacy, activists themselves may face physical and mental health deterioration. Racism, discrimination, and prejudice are generally accepted to be negative social constructs that like-minded people might rally against in the name of equality. These social constructs create unpleasant experiences for classes of people in this country who identify as something other than a white, cisgender, Christian male. Racism not only contributes to unhappiness, but also causes depression, hypertension, and several other mental and physical health problems. Violent and non-violent experiences, caused by discrimination, often force Black people to live in a state of constant distress characterized by troublesome thoughts and feelings of emotional numbness. When activists who are representatives of oppressed individuals advocate for change to this perpetual state of being, they are also provided a set of challenges that negatively impact their physical and mental health. Section I details the Women's Rights protests, from the suffrage movement to more recent advocacy arising from the 2016 presidential election. Civil rights history is outlined in Section II, and the current media environment and coverage of protests is described in Section III. Section IV provides information on the impacts of activism on mental health. This includes the general significance of racism on people of color with a greater focus on the impact of racism on Black people specifically and concludes with an overview of racial disparities to underscore the significance of providing access to equitable healthcare to marginalized populations.

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Protestors throughout American history have a history of requiring medical care. Whether in response to physical violence from reactionary backlash-like the suffragists who were hospitalized when they marched on Washington, or Black protestors who were attacked in response to the Civil Rights movement-or from the mental health toll which we are still trying to understand, activists and those who are implicated in their movements need access to healthcare. Refusal to offer comprehensive mental and physical health assistance to people who are not only victims of racial discrimination, but also lead the charge to racial equality diminishes the positive outcomes of activism.

The Affordable Care Act provides states with the option to expand Medicaid coverage for most low-income adults to 138% of the federal poverty level, which means people making $17,600 per year or less as a single adult would be eligible for this insurance. Not all states have elected to expand Medicaid, however, if those remaining states chose to do so, the uninsured rates would lower drastically to provide coverage for millions of Americans. As of March 31, 2021, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida have not expanded Medicaid. With the exception of South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, and North Carolina, these states rank in the top half of states that have reported the highest amount of police killings of Black people between the years of 2013 and 2020. One likely reason these states are omitted is because twenty-seven percent of the killings during this time frame were committed by police departments of the 100 largest cities. Besides North Carolina and Kansas, these states do not have any cities with populations substantial enough to meet this threshold. The overlap of states that have not expanded Medicaid with states that have significant police brutality instances illustrates how policies can worsen health disparities for people of color already experience stress induced by racism. Expanding Medicaid will increase the likelihood these individuals will have access to healthcare.

Professor Ryan DeLapp at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City emphasizes that the onus to alleviate the mental anguish that follows from exposure to images of Black violence and harm should be on inherently racist systems as opposed to individuals. Expanding Medicaid would narrow racial health disparities for Black and Hispanic people by improving access to care and health outcomes. However, additional solutions should be provided to address the mental and physical impacts that protesting can have on Black communities, since an expansion of Medicaid by itself is not sufficient to eliminate health disparities.

Despite the urgent nature of protests, particularly those led by Black individuals and women, it is important that legislators meet the demands of advocates and incorporate the need for expansive healthcare for these populations. There is a dearth of information on laws and policies that have been passed or even set forth to address the health disparities specifically attributed to activism. Given the health risk that activists subject themselves to, in order to fully address their grievances, their own well-being should be a priority in all policies designed to mitigate injustice and inequality.

Courtney Lauren Anderson is an associate professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.

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