Morning Zen

Let’s Make Good Trouble to Heal Some Lasting Effects of Slavery on American Black Children

August 13, 2020

By a great-grandchild of a freed slave, and the great-great grandson of white merchant


Population-level use of prevention science coupled with social justice can heal both historic biological and social wounds to Slavery descendants, unknown to educators and politicians. Few teachers, school leaders, and schools of education know that such prevention science can and has been scaled in gold-standard experiments to create educational equity and social justice, including high-school graduation, college entry, reductions in addiction, violence, the reversal of ACE’s, and more. Fewer know that schools could begin implementing such practical science, cited in four Institute of Medicine Reports and Surgeon General Reports. And the lifetime cost per child is the equivalent of taking a Black child to a movie, getting popcorn and a soda, and a pizza slice afterward. Let’s make good trouble.

The late John Lewis urged us to make “good trouble” for social justice. The Congressman Lewis proclaimed: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say’?”

Ending the lasting harms of slavery requires clean, clear truth to predatory falsity, distraction, greed, and power. Emancipation did not end all the harms. Jim Crow and the Great Migration created new harms—invisible shackles or health and behavioral disparities arising from the debris of industrial pollution in pursuit of wealth using the labor and lives of African Americans in red-lined neighborhoods. Humans exploiting humans to gain wealth, and power are not new among our species. Still, they are very dangerous for shared equity in peace, productivity, health, and happiness for long-term safety and well-being for our world. Great inequities ultimately create failed nations.

Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education did not end educational and employment disparities, because of red-lining neighborhoods. Health disparities are still wide—not just because of access to care—but because of epigenetic insults from slavery itself that linger among the descendants.

The Atlantic Slave Trade—a dangerous, often deadly one-way tunnel, created conditions of slavery and subsequent institutionalized exploitation and racism that changed the biology, health, and behavior of the descendants in adverse ways. Those adversities harmed us and still harm the descendants with greater risks for cardiovascular disease, lead poisoning, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and more.

Humans have selected traits that enabled them to survive and thrive. And, very dark skin from the incessant beating sun saved my ancestors from becoming one giant melanoma; and retaining salt when access to salt was rare also enabled our ancient ancestors to survive and thrive [1]. My Scandinavian genes’ very light skin enabled those ancestors to ward off infection by absorbing more sunlight for Vitamin D [2].

But high levels of salt and dark skin can kill their descendants in North America, as you will learn about the principle of evolutionary mismatch [3], which is happening right now with higher levels of mortality from Covid-19 among African Americans [4]. Besides scientists, few people wonder how human traits evolved in different places to increase their survival. I have a peculiar saying: “Don’t mess with God or Darwin.” We did both with Slavery.

Consider the Health, Illnesses and Deaths of African Americans
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow, and other forms of institutional racism left marks that harm the descendants of slaves today, elegantly summarized in a recent medical study [5]:

Nearly half (42.8%) of U.S.-born Blacks—but only 27.4% of foreign-born Blacks—had hypertension.

Thus, a moral imperative. We must begin to explain the cascade of health and behavioral issues the descendants of slavery have today in America. The healing of the untoward and continuing effects of slavery must come about with profound acknowledgment of the suffering and the prospect of remediation of lingering mortality and morbidity effects though gold standard science. Then, the solutions must be scaled up to any place to reduce the burden of those disparities caused by slavery.

“Outing” the Social and Biological Bottleneck of Slavery
If you are a descendant of African American slaves, chances are your genes carry the scars of that horrible evolutionary bottleneck and the direct harms of bondage [1]. Those scars and harms lingered well after Juneteenth, all the way to the present. The descendants of Slavery have higher levels of cardiovascular disease (e.g., high blood pressure, risk of strokes) and kidney disease, pre-mature births, kidney disease, lead (Pb) lead exposure, schizophrenia, compared to existing populations in Africa, for example.

Some of these tragic diseases or disorders are less likely for Africans who migrated voluntarily to the New World, yet more common for the descendants of Slavery who went through the evolutionary bottleneck of capture, embarkation, the Middle Passage, Slavery and then the great migration to the North.

Current racial discrimination happens regardless of involuntary or voluntary migration. An African American student or a Nigerian foreign student could both badly treated by a swearing bigot. However, “institutionally-caused” racism like evolutionary bottlenecks such as the trans-Atlantic institution of Slavery had lasting effects through epigenetic mechanisms, not understood scientifically until recently.

Political Decisions Can Kill Maim or Kill America’s Children
As descendants of slavery, our vulnerability to lead (Pb) is particularly harmful to children’s brains and behavioral development. Airborne lead levels measured by the Environmental Protection Agency predict both homicide and juvenile delinquency in the 3,111 counties in the lower 48 states. You would not require a PhD to guess which counties, communities, and children are most vulnerable [10, 11]. That’s bad trouble, and it is structural—not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead, it is part of America’s past and present social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist.

Think of structural racism as much of fixture in America, as is driving on the right in America. The people who drew zoning maps 70-100 years ago are almost certainly dead. However, the thing (PB, lead dust) still exists in urban neighborhoods from factories or leaded gasoline in the previous century. And, that harm—based on structural racism—can, and likely, still does harm the brain, behavioral development as the health of current residents without their knowledge. Worse, the people in charge in the present may not even know of that potential, continuing harm. Sometimes, they do but fear the loss of their jobs, a natural human response.

Create Map Overlays to Understand Systemic, Structural Racism
Consider Chicago, Illinois. A map of Chicago communities showing high levels of lead in children’s blood nearly mirrors a map of Chicago communities showing where African American children live. And, now add one more map overlay: homicide. Unless you are visually impaired and cannot see the maps, one would be hard-pressed NOT to conclude: lead (Pb) exposure + African American descent = homicide rates. But you would miss the penultimate causal chain—the evolutionary bottleneck of Slavery from Africa to now.

The Fair Housing Act aimed at reducing the “redlining” that caged in families of color to areas filled with all manner of industrial water, soil, and air pollution that causes all categories of morbidity and mortality for people of color. The current administration now plans to allow “redlining” to make suburbanites safe from “those” people.

Thus, the violence and other physical and cognitive issues are the results of the uptake of lead (Pb) in the brain [16]. As a result of housing redlines of African Americans close the sources of long-term industrial pollution. The impact of lead (Pb) is not just homicide, but also delinquency, poor academic outcomes, risk of addictions, and high rates of problematic behavior. But times are better. Right? Are we not post-separate? Are African American children not afforded the same health, safety, and educational advantages where I live or have prevention research in cities with high crime? Hardly.

Laws and Regulations Are Never Made by the Most Vulnerable
I have not worked in Flint, but I have for nearly 20 years in ____ city schools, developing and testing strategies to reduce and mitigate the behavioral effects of lead (Pb), education difficulties, behavioral disorders, developmental delays,  violence, neighborhood drugs, poverty etc. with many colleagues for evidence-based prevention and early intervention.  The effects of lead are easy to spot on children’s behavior and learning. In the present time, would you let your child wash their hands to prevent Covid-19 if it risked lead exposure?

Consider how much lead is “safe” for the brain and behaviors of children, be they your children or somebody else’s’ children. It’s important to remember that other people’s children will impact your children or children you otherwise love and care about. You may think your child or grandchild will be protected from the behavioral and health effects of Pb (lead exposure). Still, your protected child is a citizen of a larger world of children whose minds and behavior have been pillaged by the ravages of lead in their blood, bones, brains, and behavior.

Creating Good Trouble
America needs Good Trouble to protect and heal the terrible national and local burden of higher exposure and absorption of lead among descendants of slavery (and any other child). There is no known “safe exposure” to lead.

The arcs of the institution of slavery, the Civil War, the Great Migration to the Industrial North, and epigenetic mechanisms magnified by the Capture, Embarkation, the Middle Passage, sale into bondage, and the forceable rape of African American women by whites (to increase the Slave Holders’ wealth) had multiple epigenetic effects on those of us who have African American descent. That’s a big pile of bad trouble that has a lasting impact today when you connect the dots from then to now.    

Mitigating the effects of lead on the wellbeing of African-American children rapidly is the combination of gold-standard science and a brigade of scientists, advocates, and community leaders. Here is the rough outline of the action plan to heal this historic, institutionalized act of racism:

  1. A declaration of truth for the institution of slavery, Jim Crow that followed, and red-lining of housing and related forms of institutionalized/financial racism that increased the risk exposure of African Americans to lead (Pb).
  2. Map areas of lead (Pb in soil, dust, pipes, water, airborne, etc.)—a great inter-disciplinary project for college students and some retired scientists, doctors, real estate agents, lawyers, etc. There are examples in the scientific literature.
  3. Overlay school feeder patterns.
  4. Overlay housing stock by type (single-family, multi-family, apartments, mobile homes, etc.).
  5. Sample environmental lead exposure in the diverse settings, and then randomly sample some children in those areas if possible. You will need some public health or university people involved.
  6. Randomly sample children, teens, and adult’s blood levels of lead. And remember ANY blood level of lead can have adverse effects, not just the arbitrary.
  7. Observe malleable behaviors of groups of children in school settings (e.g., sustained attention, disturbing/disruptive behaviors, and aggression in public spaces like playgrounds). Behavioral scientists have simple codes for this, much like taking a temperature for evidence of fever or measuring blood pressure for cardiovascular risks.
  8. Initiate powerful yet simple scientifically proven strategies:
    1. Move quickly medically to reduce the lead (Pb) burden in children’s bodies (quite possible), and
    2. Implement well-proven,[1] and scalable behavioral and academic strategies to mitigate the academic, mental, emotional, health, and behavioral harms to African-American children through adulthood.
  9. Engage in the ongoing process of Truth and Reconciliation.

The above are practical medical, social, educational and spiritual examples of what must be done to repair broad, significant harms to Slavery descendants—including positive BDNF gene expression and reversal of ACE’s effects can have proven enormous positive impact on the education, health, wealth, and wellbeing of the descendants of American Slavery such as the Good Behavior Game [25] or classwide peer tutoring studied (both with Black students) [29-32]. These are examples of repairing harms, and there more presented in the talk. Besides repairing the harms, we—as a country—must formally acknowledge that the harms really did happen and still haunts America 155 years later for Truth and Reconciliation.

Tikkun Olam (in Hebrew) means to repair the world, and each us are obligated to participate in the healing. I wrote this watching the funeral of John Lewis. May the spirit of reconciliation and good science be joined with a commitment for justice to set our people free from lingering harms of slavery and discrimination that diminish the peace, productivity, health, and happiness in our country and the world. That’s good trouble: godspeed, John Lewis. 

[1] This means multiple randomized control studies with long-term follow that show significant benefits on reducing historic disparities such as school failure, special education placement, dropping out of school, delinquency/crime, violence, addictions, mental illnesses, unstable employment, and increased morbidity and mortality.

  1. Poledne R, Zicha J: Human genome evolution and development of cardiovascular risk factors through natural selection. Physiol Res 2018, 67(2):155-163.
  2. Cannell JJ, Vieth R, Umhau JC, Holick MF, Grant WB, Madronich S, Garland CF, Giovannucci E: Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiological Infections 2006, 136(December):1129-1140.
  3. Manus MB: Evolutionary mismatch. Evol Med Public Health 2018, 2018(1):190-191.
  4. Millett GA, Jones AT, Benkeser D, Baral S, Mercer L, Beyrer C, Honermann B, Lankiewicz E, Mena L, Crowley JS, et al: Assessing differential impacts of COVID-19 on black communities. Annals of Epidemiology 2020, 47:37-44.
  5. Brown AGM, Houser RF, Mattei J, Mozaffarian D, Lichtenstein AH, Folta SC: Hypertension among US-born and foreign-born non-Hispanic Blacks: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2014 data. J Hypertens 2017, 35(12):2380-2387.
  6. Wilson DS, Hayes SC, Biglan A, Embry DD: Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Brain and Behavioral Sciences 2014, 37(4):395-416.
  7. Ekamper P, van Poppel F, Stein AD, Bijwaard GE, Lumey LH: Prenatal famine exposure and adult mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes through age 63 years. Am J Epidemiol 2015, 181(4):271-279.
  8. Ekamper P, van Poppel F, Stein AD, Lumey LH: Independent and additive association of prenatal famine exposure and intermediary life conditions with adult mortality between age 18-63 years. Soc Sci Med 2014, 119:232-239.
  9. Costa DL, Yetter N, DeSomer H: Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2018, 115(44):11215-11220.
  10. Stretesky PB, Lynch MJ: The relationship between lead exposure and homicide. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 2001, 155(5):579-582.
  11. Stretesky PB, Lynch MJ: The relationship between lead and crime. Journal of Health & Social Behavior 2004, 45(2):214-229.
  12. Embry DD, McDaniel R: Reclaiming Wyoming: A Blueprint for Substance Abuse Prevention, Intervention and Treatment. Cheyenne, WY: State of Wyoming, Substance Abuse Division; 2002.
  13. Biglan A, Johansson M, Van Ryzin M, Embry D: Scaling up and scaling out: Consilience and the evolution of more nurturing societies. Clinical Psychology Review 2020:101893.
  14. Johansson M, Biglan A, Embry DD: The PAX Good Behavior Game: One Model for Evolving a More Nurturing Society. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review in press.
  15. Vivier PM, Hauptman M, Weitzen SH, Bell S, Quilliam DN, Logan JR: The important health impact of where a child lives: neighborhood characteristics and the burden of lead poisoning. Matern Child Health J 2011, 15(8):1195-1202.
  16. Hwang L: Environmental stressors and violence: lead and polychlorinated biphenyls. Rev Environ Health 2007, 22(4):313-328.
  17. Janusek LW, Tell D, Gaylord-Harden N, Mathews HL: Relationship of childhood adversity and neighborhood violence to a proinflammatory phenotype in emerging adult African American men: An epigenetic link. Brain Behav Immun 2017, 60:126-135.
  18. Reuben A, Sugden K, Arseneault L, Corcoran DL, Danese A, Fisher HL, Moffitt TE, Newbury JB, Odgers C, Prinz J et al: Association of Neighborhood Disadvantage in Childhood With DNA Methylation in Young Adulthood. JAMA Netw Open 2020, 3(6):e206095.
  19. Taylor JY, Wright ML, Housman D: Lead toxicity and genetics in Flint, MI. NPJ Genom Med 2016, 1:16018.
  20. Campbell JR, Rosier RN, Novotny L, Puzas JE: The association between environmental lead exposure and bone density in children. Environmental Health Perspectives 2004, 112(11):1200-1203.
  21. Chiodo LM, Jacobson SW, Jacobson JL: Neurodevelopmental effects of postnatal lead exposure at very low levels. Neurotoxicology & Teratology 2004, 26(3):359-371.
  22. Long J, Covington C, Delaney-Black V, Nordstrom B: Allelic variation and environmental lead exposure in urban children. AACN clinical issues 2002, 13(4):550-556.
  23. Theppeang K, Glass TA, Bandeen-Roche K, Todd AC, Rohde CA, Schwartz BS: Gender and race/ethnicity differences in lead dose biomarkers. American Journal of Public Health 2008, 98(7):1248-1255.
  24. Kellam SG, Rebok GW, Ialongo N, Mayer LS: The course and malleability of aggressive behavior from early first grade into middle school: Results of a developmental epidemiology-based preventive trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1994, 35:259-281.
  25. Kellam SG, Mackenzie AC, Brown CH, Poduska JM, Wang W, Petras H, Wilcox HC: The good behavior game and the future of prevention and treatment. Addict Sci Clin Pract 2011, 6(1):73-84.
  26. O’Connell ME, Boat T, Warner KE (eds.): Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; 2009.
  27. Amato MS, Magzamen S, Imm P, Havlena JA, Anderson HA, Kanarek MS, Moore CF: Early lead exposure (<3 years old) prospectively predicts fourth grade school suspension in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA). Environ Res 2013, 126:60-65.
  28. Magzamen S, Imm P, Amato MS, Havlena JA, Anderson HA, Moore CF, Kanarek MS: Moderate lead exposure and elementary school end-of-grade examination performance. Ann Epidemiol 2013, 23(11):700-707.
  29. Greenwood CR, Kamps D, Terry BJ, Linebarger DL: Primary intervention: A means of preventing special education? Evidence-based reading practices for response to intervention 2007:73-103.
  30. Greenwood CR, Tapia Y, Abbott M, Walton C: A building-based case study of evidence-based literacy practices: Implementation, reading behavior, and growth in reading fluency, K-4. Journal of Special Education 2003, 37(2):95-110.
  31. Greenwood CR, Maheady L, Delquadri J: Classwide Peer Tutoring Programs. In: Interventions for academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches. edn. Edited by Shinn MR, Walker HM, Stoner G. Washington, DC, US: National Association of School Psychologists; 2002: 611-649.
  32. Greenwood CR, Arreaga-Mayer C, Utley CA, Gavin KM, Terry BJ: ClassWide Peer Tutoring Learning Management System: Applications with elementary-level English language learners. Remedial and Special Education 2001, 22(1):34-47.
Explore More Posts
About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dennis Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as a clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Dr. Embry serves as a National Advisory Council member and Chief Science Advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network.

The Child Welfare League of America has recognized Dr. Dennis Embry as one of the 100 Champions for Children. As part of CWLA’s 100th-anniversary celebration, they chose to recognize the exceptional commitment of individuals, organizations, and corporations who serve as champions for children and those who work on their behalf. Dennis Embry has devoted a lifetime of service on behalf of young children and their families.

Explore More Posts