BY MELISSA NOEL
NEW ORLEANS – Conversations about the effects of racism generally center on how it impacts issues like job status, wealth building and homeownership. But more recently, there has been more attention paid to the impact of racism on the health of Black people.
“Racism, both systemic and interpersonal, is a major contributor to health inequities, disparities, and disease. The impact of these injustices on American health is significant, far-reaching, and unacceptable,” according to the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
The CDC says that racial and ethnic minority communities have higher rates of poor health and disease than whites in several health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease. Life expectancy for Black/African Americans is four years lower than that of white Americans.
These substantial health disparities were discussed as part of a larger conversation about racism as a public health concern and how to address it during the Global Black Economic Forum (GBEF) at this year’s ESSENCE Festival of Culture.
GBEF programming brings together global leaders, policymakers, activists, and celebrities annually to advance equity for the Black community and other marginalized groups. The forum includes pertinent panels on topics such as philanthropy, healthcare, and diversity.
“Racism does not exist in the vacuum,” said Cliff Barnes, who moderated the conversation. Barnes, a Partner at the law firm Epstein, Becker, and Green, added that some policies and practices have manifested and perpetuated it.
He asked each of the three panelists, “How does history as Black people in America and our current state impact health?”
In response, the President & CEO of National Medical Fellowships, Michellene Davis, Esq., said, “Healthcare is undoubtedly the Civil Rights issue of our time.”
“What we have seen, what we are seeing is that when you live in one of the most industrialized countries in the world, that for Black and Brown communities to have issues still to access clean, potable water, as we do in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, and quite frankly, any urban environment where there are lead pipes bringing us our water, we know that we are still in the midst of a crisis,” she added.
Davis also noted that things such as certain zoning laws, regulations and other policies “create for us environments where it is difficult for us to actually achieve sound health.”
“What we know, inherently, is that the challenges that we do have with the health system are really rooted in racism. It is racism,” said American Medical Association Chief Healthy Equity Officer Dr. Althea Maybank, noting that the roots of racism in America run deep and have impacted generations of Black people.
For Dr. Cedric Bright, explaining the prevalence of racism in healthcare comes down to a simple question that Black people often have to ask themselves after seeking care: “Did that just happen to me because I’m Black?”
Despite the challenges of combatting racism and the subsequent public health crisis that it has created, they each shared things people can do to push back and persevere.
“It’s so important that we develop programs that help create pathways for our young people to reach the point of becoming health professionals. There’s nothing in health care where we have too many of… there’s a place where we all belong,” said Dr. Bright, who is Vice Dean For Medical Education And Admissions at Brody School Of Medicine at East Carolina University.
“I think the biggest importance is how much we are going to rely on each other,” Dr. Maybank said. She also highlighted the Black Progress Index by the Brookings Institute and the NAACP for context.
“I think it’s a really important context because a lot of the data shows the deficits that we don’t have as Black people, the gaps. You have more hypertension, more cancer, all those things that we need to know. But to me, we don’t build from a context of deficit; we build from a context of strength and knowing what our strengths are,” she added. Dr. Maybank encouraged communities of color to look at reports like this that show where Black people are living longer, thriving to build strength.
In closing, Davis provided three key pieces of advice: practice self-care and equip yourself with the knowledge about health disparities in your demographic, speak up when you go to the doctor, and be intentional about finding and going to a Black doctor.