Dreams Deferred

Even in sleep, African Americans are treated unequally.

| Fall 2018

  • Fewer black people are able to sleep for the recommended six to nine hours nightly than any other ethnic group in the United States.
    Photo by Getty Images/Digitalskillet

When we study racial inequality, we tend to consider factors that affect people while they are awake. Differential access to safe neighborhoods with good schools, decent jobs, and unbalanced treatment by police and the courts surely have much to do with the stubborn disparities in wealth and well-being, in particular among blacks and whites. Yet it may be just as important to consider what happens when we’re asleep. Race shapes our sleep, a relationship that has surprising roots deep in our national past.

African Americans suffer from a “sleep gap”: fewer black people are able to sleep for the recommended six to nine hours nightly than any other ethnic group in the United States. Compounding matters, a smaller percentage of African Americans’ slumber is spent in “slow-wave sleep,” the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep that produces the most benefits in healing and cognition. Poor sleep has cascading effects on racial health disparities, including increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The racial sleep gap is largely a matter of unequal access to safe, reliable, and comfortable sleep environments, and this sleeping inequality has a long history. For centuries, whites have tacitly accepted — and even actively created — such inequality. Aboard the ships of the transatlantic slave trade, African captives were made to sleep en masse in the hold, often while chained together. Once in the New World, enslaved people were usually still made to sleep in tight quarters, sometimes on the bare floor, and they struggled to snatch any sleep at all while chained together in the coffle. Slaveholders systematically disallowed privacy as they attempted round-the-clock surveillance, and enslaved women were especially susceptible at night to sexual assault from white men.

One might think that slaveholders, looking out for their bottom line, would be interested in ensuring at least a modicum of restful slumber for their enslaved workers. The social reformer Thomas Tryon made this argument in 1684 when he wrote of “inconsiderate masters” who compel the enslaved to work so hard that they were often so “overcome with weariness and want of proper Rest” that they would “fall into the fierce boyling Syrups” of the sugar pots. Ensuring proper rest, he wrote, “would add much to their Profit” as well as to the slaves’ health.



Yet just as often, slaveholders justified overwork and minimal rest as a positive good, in the process elaborating curious theories about the supposed natural differences between the races.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, opined that black people simply “require less sleep” than whites. And while he noted enslaved people’s propensity to drop off quickly at the end of a long day, he convinced himself that a rapid descent into sleep was evidence of inferior intellects (rather than insufficient rest). White people, he observed, could keep themselves up late into the night to pursue intellectual or creative endeavors, whereas “negroes” were deficient in the powers of “reflection” that allowed them to do so: “An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.”

PhilAllsopp
10/12/2018 11:28:01 AM

Disturbed sleep has an insidious effect on everyone who has to sleep in uncomfortable conditions. Poor quality housing where hot bedrooms, light pollution and noise from streets or neighbors are commonplace represents a deadly embrace to the already out of control obesity and diabetes epidemics sweeping many nations. When a family has to spend huge sums trying to cool their houses at night in increasingly hot summers, they they are forced to choose between paying utility bills and buying nutritious food. When the money left over is only capable of purchasing processed foods laden with carbs and sugars, its no wonder that the increased waking appetites and cravings for carbohydrates and sugar resulting from disturbed sleep are feeding the obesity epidemic. Meanwhile developers and builders who tout their built-on-the-cheap dwellings (so as to extract as much profit as possible) as green this or green that, make off like bandits, leaving behind them a trail of social destruction of the kind cited in this article. Yet they and landlords pay little heed to this while they make off with their profits immune, it seems from accountability for their actions. As I've said on many an occasion, "Architecture is a public health endeavor". It certainly has nothing at all to do with high rise "starchitecture" or soul-destroying tract housing "developments, no matter what the marketing hype has to say. As such those engaged in the financing, design, construction and maintenance of built environments, have significant ethical and moral responsibilities that deal with human health and wellbeing. In light of its obvious impacts on health, Human Habitat has to be viewed as something far more profound than a mere real estate commodity to be built on the cheap as is pervasively the case today. It should nourish the human spirit and enable - and encourage - a wide array of human endeavors. Ensuring access to a decent night's sleep is a very basic and easy to accomplish requirement. The consequences of continuing down the real estate commodity path is costing the US alone $3 Trillion a year in treating chronic diseases. That’s a steep price the nation is paying for allowing developers and builders to enrich themselves from selling and managing shoddy construction.


AOM
10/12/2018 9:35:53 AM

I don't idolize Jefferson and I don't intend at all to make slavery seem humane, but one of the reasons for Jefferson's remarks about slaves needing less sleep was based on some of the lore that white Virginians slowly learned over time. Whenever the masters and overseers went to sleep, the slaves would quietly leave the farms and plantations to do things they weren't given the time or freedom to do during the day. Some would go to late night meetings led by energetic evangelists, other slaves would just be cutting loose with or without some homemade beverages, and other slaves would be traveling alone for great distances just to reunite for a couple of hours with children, parents, siblings, or spouses who'd been sold to other plantations. What some owners of slaves like Jefferson likely didn't realize was that some of these slaves were able to keep this up not because they needed less sleep but because they found ways to rest during the day when the overseers were busy elsewhere. This might have also led to the pernicious stereotype of slaves being lazy. The oblivious overseers began to believe that slaves wouldn't do much work if there wasn't someone close by watching them.


PhilAllsopp
10/12/2018 8:24:32 AM

Disturbed sleep has an insidious effect on everyone who has to sleep in uncomfortable conditions. Poor quality housing where hot bedrooms, light pollution and noise from streets or neighbors are commonplace represents a deadly embrace to the already out of control obesity and diabetes epidemics sweeping many nations. When a family has to spend huge sums trying to cool their houses at night in increasingly hot summers, they they are forced to choose between paying utility bills and buying nutritious food. When the money left over is only capable of purchasing processed foods laden with carbs and sugars, its no wonder that the increased waking appetites and cravings for carbohydrates and sugar resulting from disturbed sleep are feeding the obesity epidemic. Meanwhile developers and builders who tout their built-on-the-cheap dwellings (so as to extract as much profit as possible) as green this or green that, make off like bandits, leaving behind them a trail of social destruction of the kind cited in this article. Yet they and landlords pay little heed to this while they make off with their profits immune, it seems, from accountability for their actions. As I've said on many an occasion, "Architecture is a public health endeavor". It certainly has nothing at all to do with high rise "starchitecture" or soul-destroying tract housing "developments, no matter what the marketing hype has to say. As such those engaged in the financing, design, construction and maintenance of built environments, have significant ethical and moral responsibilities that deal with human health and wellbeing. In light of its obvious impacts on health, Human Habitat has to be viewed as something far more profound than a mere real estate commodity to be built on the cheap as is pervasively the case today. It should nourish the human spirit and enable - and encourage - a wide array of human endeavors. Ensuring access to a decent night's sleep is a very basic and easy to accomplish requirement. The consequences of continuing down the real estate commodity path is costing the US alone $3 Trillion a year in treating chronic diseases. That’s a steep price the nation is paying for allowing developers and builders to enrich themselves from selling and managing shoddy construction.




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