New Orleans When you first encounter the term “weathering,” you would be forgiven if your first thought was that we were talking about climate change, yet again. In a certain way, maybe we are, because we’re talking about a concept coined by a social scientist for the chronic stress individuals face in our social environment. It’s not caused by wind and water, but more likely racism and poverty. No one can ask FEMA to deal with it, but the studies over 30 years that have produced 130 research papers by the University of Michigan’s Arline Geronimus point to this kind weathering as an erosion of health and life itself associated with what many observers are now also calling the social determinants of health.
At one level, it now almost seems like common sense. Of course, if someone is constantly on edge, having to do twice as much in every situation and do it double time and with one eye over your shoulder, why wouldn’t it wear you down and impact your health and well-being. Certainly, that’s what Professor Geronimus found in her research, first with Black women, where even upper income Black women had the same health outcomes as very low-income white women, and then as she looked at similar data for Mexican immigrants and low-income white Appalachian families as well. People break under pressure, just as every thing in the natural world cracks under pressure as well.
An excellent story in the Times charts the progress the weathering theory has travelled from being radical and uncertain to being widely accepted. I’m not saying that it’s having its moment exactly, but that may be the case, and part of the reason may be found in the lessons of the pandemic. The death rates from COVID-19 were more pronounced in precarious communities and among lower income and racial minorities, exposing again the fault lines of our public health system and the systemic pressures that go with class and race in America.
Whether weathering makes a difference in policy going forward is more fraught. The Times offers a pandemic success story, where some individuals were allowed out of immigration confinement because of Dr. Geronimus’ work and advocacy. Unfortunately, in a time when some states are even trying to forbid anything that even mentions race in public schools or is even taught in universities, because it’s divisive, it’s hard to believe that policies and practices to reduce weathering are near at hand. In fact, a lot of contemporary politics seems designed to increase polarization, division, and the same kinds of stress and pressure that defines weatherization and is crippling and killing people before their time. Seems like in many of our communities, if one kind of weather doesn’t take us down, then another might do it to us.