Black Americans on average die four years before White Americans, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic released last month. “When America gets a cold, poor black folk get pneumonia,” said Dr. David Williams, professor of public health at Harvard, in a panel discussion last week. And yet he said the majority of black Americans are unaware of these discrepancies, which makes raising awareness among the general population an even greater challenge.
The discussion took place last week on a sunny Wednesday, when hundreds of people gave up their beach plans and flocked to the high school performing arts center for a daylong event that included a wide-ranging dialogue about one of the most pressing civil rights issue today: racial disparities in health outcomes.
The main event, a panel on Race, Place and Health in the 21st Century, was moderated by Charles Ogletree Jr., of the Charles Hamilton center at Harvard University, almost exactly 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
At midday, seven panelists assembled on stage to speak passionately about the health care system.
The panelists, most of whom hold medical or public health degrees, spoke about obstacles to good health in impoverished neighborhoods where the streets are not safe to roam and healthful food is not available for purchase. “There are more liquor stores and more tobacco being sold in black communities,” said Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Everything about the way food is being marketed is sold in this country, comes together to push unhealthy food in our communities.”
Panel members explored food as a social justice issue and violence as a preventable disease. They also spoke of injustices black Americans face in the medical world, even in the case of a simple doctor’s visit. Dr. Rodney Hood, president of the MultiCultural Primary Care Medical Group, told a story of visiting the doctor with his mother. When the nurse came out to collect patients for their visits, she called each by their last name, as in Ms. O’Donnell, Ms. O’Connell, Ms. Murphy, he recalled. “Finally I hear my mother’s name, and this white nurse says Evelyn . . . she [his mother] said, I did not give you permission to call me that.”
Mr. Williams cited studies that linked discrimination with negative health outcomes. He said the everyday indignities that black Americans experience contribute to higher levels of stress, which has been found to be correlated with poor mental and physical health, including increased abdominal fat and higher mortality rates. Mr. Hood said the widespread discrimination blacks are subjected to in the United States calls for measures of self-protection. “It is healthy for a young black man to be paranoid,” Mr. Hood’s mother told her son growing up, and he agreed.
Doctors operate under unconscious bias, and the health care system as a whole harbors an unconscious bias, said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Consultant at Spencer Stuart. These experiences are part of a larger pattern of discrimination, including the enforcement of lower expectations of African American students. “We know they will get in a classroom, and the teacher is going to have very low expectations of them,” said Ms. Prothrow-Stith, consultant at Spencer Stuart. And may panelists agreed that parenting black children is difficult because it involves teaching them about the bias of the legal, education and health care systems.
“How are we going to prepare them?” Ms. Prothrow-Stith asked.
Mostly questions were raised and concerns voiced. Some saw solutions in legal reform, but others focused more on the need to raise awareness along with the minimum wage. Poverty in the African American community tends to predict poor nutrition and limited opportunities for physical activity, they said. Even when African Americans do make it to the top, they often fail to bring others with them, Ms. Kumanyika said. “How can we make money with black people and not on the backs of black people?” she asked.
Monalisa Smith, president of Mothers for Justice and Equality, an organization dedicated to ending neighborhood violence, said the answers lie at the grass roots level, just as they did during the civil rights era. “We need people with resources to come down to the grass roots level,” she said.
Decades ago, Harry Belafonte used his resources as a popular performer to invest in the civil rights movement. He continues this work with activism on behalf of incarcerated youth.
The full-day community forum included a musical tribute to the singer and civil rights icon who was present, as well as a showing of film trailers relating to the theme of justice and present-day civil rights struggles. There was also a screening of the Report to the American People on Civil Rights, a speech delivered on television by John F. Kennedy on June 11, 1963. At day’s end, many said they had found inspiration in each other’s work for justice and a better health care system.