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Under Our Skin: How racism leaves an unmistakable mark on Black Americans

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Written by WLA Guest

by Issac J. Bailey

I’m only now coming to grips with what it has meant to my soul – and my body – to have been born Black in the Deep South in the shadow of Jim Crow and raise my kids during the era of Donald Trump. I’m one of the fortunate ones because I’ve survived to tell my own story and lived long enough to see science begin to answer questions that have long lingered in my brain. In this excerpt from “Why We Didn’t Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland,” I try to capture that truth.


Our bodies, our scars — psychic, emotional, physical — are evidence of a sickness that has been with us since before this country’s founding and, like a virus, morphs and transforms, constantly seeking new hosts to remain alive no matter whom it maims or kills. As a black man from the South, my body bears proof of white supremacy’s persistence and limitations. I’m a carrier of white supremacy in the way I’m a carrier of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, the autoimmune disease I was diagnosed with in 2013.

My white blood cells began attacking my nerves and shutting down major muscle groups, my body turning against itself for reasons science still can’t fully explain.

The aggressive treatment designed to stop the disease’s march nearly killed me, causing a 105- degree fever that wouldn’t break, multiple blood clots and fears that my heart would sustain permanent damage even if I survived. Though there’s no test I can take to confirm it, the constant stress I was exposed to since I was a little boy could have led to a lifetime of inflammation that was changing my body’s internal wiring every day even though I didn’t know it, culminating in CIDP. I spent years of my childhood watching my father routinely beat my mother before watching my oldest brother be taken away to prison when I was a 9-year-old boy. Growing up, I lived in a tin can of a house – a green-and-white mobile home – in an underfunded school system that was still segregated four decades after Brown v. Board of Education. All the while, I was battling a severe stutter that was seemingly locked in when my brother plead guilty to first-degree murder.

Occasional stress can be healthy, teaching the body how to cope. Persistent stress puts the body in a near-constant state of emergency, making it difficult for the body to moderate itself, rendering people like me less capable of discerning the line between real and imagined threats. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was a 34-year-old man. My therapist said my PTSD was linked to my childhood, meaning I went 25 years before getting help for it even as I battled daily ugly, violent images. The worst part, though, is knowing all of this — that “toxic stress” kills and ruins lives — but never being able to say it definitively, because the science isn’t that finely tuned yet. Racism kills. Literally.

When CIDP descended upon me, there were days I neither could walk nor had enough strength to fold a large towel. Since those dark days, I’ve made enormous progress. I’m in remission. I’m back to jogging 6 miles a day. I’m healthier than many people who never experienced anything like CIDP. But my body isn’t like it was before. Scars remain, as does CIDP. I can still feel the subtle disruptions and tinglings beneath my skin that were with me long before my diagnosis. They were signs I hardly paid attention to because they caused no immediate or detectable pain.

What CIDP did to me, white supremacy has done to the United States. Its causes are myriad, though largely mysterious and mystifying. The damage it leaves in its wake is often subtle, though pernicious. Sometimes its presence can’t be ignored when it announces itself in violent spasms. It’s why no discussion about white supremacy can be complete without examining the roles we all play, not just those played by Trump supporters or even avowed white supremacists. It’s not just about those carrying tiki torches or committing massacres in black churches or synagogues. White supremacy is embedded in this country’s DNA.

It’s not happenstance that there never has been racial equality in America, a country which coupled race-based chattel slavery with demands for liberty and justice. That makes the Black story unique in ways I wish it wasn’t. We don’t know what it feels like just to be American in a country that from the beginning hated and despised us for being black, and now hates and despises us for refusing to relinquish that blackness. And yet, here we are, still rising. Though they enslaved us, we didn’t give up. Though they lynched us, we didn’t give in. Though they kill us on video in broad daylight and hide behind shiny badges to absolve themselves of all responsibility, we refuse to back down.

I didn’t have to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences test or study trauma’s effects on the developing child’s brain, as I did at Harvard University for a year during a Nieman Fellowship, to know that truth. I can feel it in my bones. I can’t not feel it. I can hear it subtly coursing through my veins. It colors everything I think and feel. That’s the part of the American story many don’t want to hear, that we “overcomers” have wounds that won’t heal, that can only be managed, that we must reconcile ourselves to. That’s not a cry for help; it’s a scream for recognition, not for those of us who have trod the stony road, but for those still making their way up the rough side of the mountain.


This essay is an excerpt from Issac J Bailey’s new book, “Why Didn’t We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland,” just published by Penguin Random House,” earlier this week.

Bailey, is a Davidson College professor, a Harvard Nieman Fellow, and a National Fellow for Center for Health Journalism, where the essay first appeared.

Bailey is also a contributor to CNN.com and the Marshall Project. He is also the author of My Brother Moochi, a highly-praised memoir published in 2018.

31 Comments

  • Whine, cry, moan – everything but perform, persevere, make no excuses. President Trump has been better for blacks and all other minorities than any president in modern times. Publishing this type of race baiting nonsense won’t change a single vote in the upcoming election.

    • DOR: F******K Y*U! “Better for Blacks and all other minorities?” You are the race baiter. I will fervently pray for you.

    • Sounds to me as if you’re confusing “moaning and crying” with historical facts that you don’t like hearing. Is this country never to discuss its social issues because it makes you uncomfortable? Too bad! The man never said that he didn’t enjoy being an American Citizen, neither is he asking for anything other than respect. As myself, many black folks enjoy this country. But for any happiness or success we’ve achieved, many of us don’t accredit White America and I think that makes you upset.

      Thanks only to this nation’s demented, revisionist past black history is in its infant stages. Hang on! That train left the station long ago and guys like you are in for an unpleasant ride: Many of those who have been historically characterized as “Good God fearing Christians from humble beginnings”, will be properly categorized, by the next generation, as the savages that they truly were. I’m not moaning or crying about it, it’s just a fact and it’s my history.

      Don’t blame us for this nations hidden history. Blame those whom you have idolize for establishing an ignorant populace for the purposes of maintaining white supremacy.

      • Justin,

        You are spouting particular talking points, so your mind is made up. I’m referring more to the young black male of today. They are absolutely NOT oppressed by white supremacism. They need to take advantage of the country with the greatest array of opportunities in the world – the good old USA.

        I worked a full LE career alongside many black cops and for many black supervisors and executives. Never once did I hear them make any damn excuses or blame anybody for their failings except themselves. And their failings were minimal – they were quite impressive.

        I challenge you to break free from the chains the democrat party puts on you and take full personal responsibility.

        • Your response is an attempt to gaslight my comment. “particular talking points so your mind is made up”?. No! I’ve addressed pertinent subject matter you’d like to avoid which is proper and fair assessment of American history as it pertains to black America.

          A typical American narrative is that enslaved Africans went from uncivilized jungles, to slaves to criminals and as of today, are inundated with negative feedback and insulted with comments such as ” But for slavery we’d be running jungles”. Those are all lies and exist in todays racist narratives only to support the continued delusion of white supremacy. We are also referenced as if we came from a country called ” slave” inhabitant by a people called “black”. That country, nor people exist. Our blood lines originate from Africa to Europe to Asia. But why are we different? Why do we identify with our enslaved ancestors aa opposed to our European ancestors? The answer to those questions can be found subject matter that many people in this country refuse to examine. So as you suggest that you are concerned about these young black boys, are you willing to assist in educating them on their proper place in history as opposed to feeding them negative information? Those things make difference to their self esteem which, in term can greatly improve their outlook on life. This article, in directly, deals with that issue.

          Lastly, I’m not a Democrat so your challenge falls on deaf ears. But I’m certainly no Trump supporter. And with the “in our face” cowardice displayed by the Republican Party, I’ll probably never vote republican again.

          • Justin,

            If you’re not a democrat, and you’ll never vote republican again, then your opinion is largely irrelevant.

  • ramshackle ron,

    You better tune into some prominent blacks who are tired of the false black oppression narrative that keeps them “on the plantation.” You’re just falling for the TDS, anti-Trump rhetoric the media and your democrat party espouse. Maybe you’re referring to the multi-millionaire NBA and NFL players who kneel and throw their fists in the air because they are so oppressed.

    Too bad record low unemployment for blacks and other minorities doesn’t mean anything to you. I don’t need any prayers; I’m actually able to see the president’s results and know what they mean for the groups I mentioned.

    • Prominent blacks? Anecdotal at best. I’ll pray for the deliverance of your demented trolling soul alongside Ramshackle.

      • Shift the focus of your prayers to help the young, black males who live in the greatest country in the world and can be anything they choose to be. Don’t even say that’s not possible, as I’ll counter with one word: Obama.

        • Dose,
          Never used your comments to talk to you. But FYI, been voting for the Democrats ever since the Republican party,along with their supporters, started showing their trues colors. That would go back to the Obama administration.

        • Dose,
          I’ll give Trump credit for one thing: he has clearly exposed the hypocrisy of the white evangelical. BTW, love those protesting athletes. It’s called courage and conviction. You wouldn’t understand something like that.

          Also, my previous comments weren’t opinions. They were historic facts. I offered a partial solution. As typical, you avoided the subject matter.

          • Justin,

            Those athletes are the biggest hypocrites in our system. They are coddled, immature millionaires, sucking on the tit of white America. Take away the dollars provided by that segment of America, and the system collapses, which looks like what’s been happening to the NBA this season. Their commissioner apparently saw the trend – get woke, go broke – and has ordered the politics off the court for next season. We’ll see how that goes.

            As far as Burn Loot Murder as a movement, it’s a communist-directed money grab – funded mostly by Soros who wants to destabilize the US government. BLM of course has their white useful idiot followers who do their bidding. The criminal conspiracy – I mean movement – physically assaults people on the street who don’t parrot their talking points. Those who say, “All lives matter,” have been harassed and beaten. Many got pulled from their cars that had been stopped by angry mobs, then beaten and robbed.

            I look forward to the time “African-Americans” drop the hyphenated nonsense and quit looking for excuses.

          • Dose,

            You should also be aware that Africa is a Continent which is comprised of people with many different hues of color and cultures.

            Many African Americans look like you.

          • Dose,
            It is the epitome of ignorance to ridicule black Americans for using any hyphenated pronouns to describe themselves. We are not the ones who created the distinctions or sustained them.

            Furthermore, providing your objection has to do with kneeling before an inanimate object such as a flag, your ilk lacks the moral credibility to criticize protesting athletes. I’d like to see your kind pull down a few confederate monuments, and other peripheral savages. Then we can talk. These players are well aware of the financial consequences. That’s what makes them brave. And just as was following the civil rights movement, all scoffers say nothing of the benefits they’ve reaped as a result of the movement and attempt to associate their morals with those who sacrificed. That’s what makes them cowards and I’m comfortable suggesting that you’re no different than the coward.

            It’s amazing how you can’t see that you are the same person you’re talking about as you continue to paint with a very broad brush. I’ll agree, that “some” should stop blaming “whitey” for some of their own issues. Let’s see if you can discuss black America in anything other than a negative context. If not, you’re no more intelligent than those you speak of.

            BTW, never heard anything from you regarding teaching those black boys, that you’re so concerned about, positive points of their own history. e,

  • @ Dose
    Your “broad brush” covers anything & everything black, Amazing!

    I agree with you in that many well heeled whites (including Soros) have hijacked the altruistic meaning of Black lives that actually matter.

    The B.L.Movement is a whole different matter and does nothing for the lives of Blacks.

    Funny how every gathering of Blacks is attributed to BLM, when in totality 90% of damage is done by non Blacks during protests and criminal activity.
    Count the number of Blacks when major highways/freeway are blocked

    I suggest that you leave your bubble and get some “boots on the ground experience” outside of your patrol car or 10th floor view.

    • Brother,

      Africa is a continent? Who knew? I’ll tell you who didn’t know – lots of blacks interviewed on a Watter’s World-type interview on the streets. Many thought it was a country. And guess how many had ever been there? Not a damn one of them. I have – Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Mauritania. If not for this Covid nonsense, I’d have gone back this year. But hey, thanks for the free education. LOL

      I don’t need any different perspective – I’m well aware that tons of white useful idiots are down with the Burn Loot Murder game – anarchists, antifa, general scumbags.

      I’ve met South Africans of Dutch descent who are laughed at here for calling themselves “African-American.” They get the same love whites get in Hawaii when the locals call them “haoles.” Been there as well and received “love” from the locals.

      • If you believe waters world is a credible source of information with a well rounded perspective, I’m willing to bet you believe Elvis is alive. Or maybe you go out looking for bigfoot on occasion. Just wondering: Do you have an uncle whose been abducted by aliens recently?

        • When he interviews actual college students at universities, yeah, it seems like a legit news story. They generally are ignorant, uneducated buffoons.

  • I have said it before and I will say it one more time. It is NOT what white think about blacks that is the problem. The problem is what blacks think of themselves. Dignity and self respect come from within. The author suffered from PSTD. Not from being black in a white society but for being poor in a dysfunctional family where his mother was beaten by his father and his brother ended up in prison. No one is asking black Americans to give up their blackness. They are asking black Americans to assimilate into into the multi culture that is America and too let go of the chains of the past. As black Americans can have pride in their culture and heritage so can white people without being labeled a Trump supporter or white supremacist.

  • Justin,

    Your hyperbolic insults are not sticking. It’s not my responsibility to teach young black males anything.

    And again, your non-voting status makes your opinions moot.

    • Didn’t say teaching young males was your responsibility. You brought them into the conversation as one negative lump sum.

      Check my comments. Just said I’m no longer voting republican. But I vote. It’s just laughable how you use that to run away from the conversation.

      As I mentioned earlier, not using your comments to talk to you. We see right thru you.

      • Justin,

        Who’s we? Got a mouse in your pocket?

        And after all your covering tripe, I’m back to where I started:

        Whine, cry, moan – everything but perform, persevere, make no excuses. President Trump has been better for blacks and all other minorities than any president in modern times.

        Trump 2020

        • Regardless of how you feel about Blacks or Trump, yelling from the rooftops doesn’t matter.

          Cite bonafide facts with laws and measures enacted by trump and his betterment for Blacks and ALL minorities in modern times.

          Are all of your brushes that broad?

          • No thanks. Do your own research. You’re voting for Biden, anyway. Nothing I could say or point to could change your mind. This is why the democrat party exists. The moment (which is coming) blacks, even a small percentage, leave the party – it’s over.

          • Your claim minus citations is moot.
            I love your neverending broad brush assuming that I’m voting for Biden which from your typical textbook.

            Familiarity breeds contempt and misinformation breeds maliciousness.

  • Brother from Another,

    You’re punching above your weight class in the writing department and tripping over yourself.

    And you most certainly are voting for creepy Uncle Joe.

  • I just want to know the facts, what has Trump done better then any other President for the descendants of formerly enslaved people in America during his 4 years in office ? Do not tell me about pardoning 2 people. Facts ….

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