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Black History Month and Black health

GLENN ELLIS | 2/19/2017, 5:33 a.m.
Race is everywhere in medicine. Most health statistics are broken down by race. Despite a pervasive belief that race represents ...
An unidentified woman rests at the Harris County Convalescent Ward at the old Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston, Sept. 29, 1957. Associated Press

Strategies for Well-Being

Race is everywhere in medicine. Most health statistics are broken down by race. Despite a pervasive belief that race represents clear-cut and genetically distinct groups of people, there is no evidence that it is associated with any personality traits, skills or abilities.

Yet, if we just look at health outcomes, an argument could be made that being an African American is a disease unto itself! Across the board, if you look at the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., Blacks have higher death rates than Whites in about 12 of them, including heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The celebrations can be experienced nationally and worldwide as many organizations, cities, states and countries host events that educate on the rich culture and memorable figures of African American history. How often is health a topic of focus during Black History Month?

This entire month of February has been set aside, each year, so that all Americans can honor the past of a people who were brought to this country in political bondage.

But there is one area where the bondage of African Americans continues … health!

African Americans have a unique history in the United States, which has led to some unique factors that have created significant health disparities in the Black community. Whether these factors are cultural, environmental or structural, it is important to reflect on where African Americans are in terms of health status. One of the main reasons, experts say, is because people of color often live in areas where there isn’t a lot of access to quality health care or to better lifestyle choices.

Areas of high racial segregation are areas of high concentrations of poverty and the absence of access to good schools, the absence of access to high-quality medical care, exposure to high levels of messages about tobacco and alcohol and low access to green spaces and areas to exercise.

Historically, within medical research, African Americans were often relegated to unscientific experiments aimed at bolstering eugenics – such as the disfiguring procedures performed in the antebellum South by White physicians on non-consenting Black slaves. In addition, they’ve historically been excluded from clinical and therapeutic trials that seek to uncover risk factors for disease and offer life-saving new treatments. Consider the infamous federally funded Tuskegee syphilis experiment (shut down only after it was exposed in 1972), which denied treatment to hundreds of African American men suffering from the disease.

Between 1933 and 1974, the state of North Carolina ran one of the most aggressive eugenics programs, sterilizing more than 7,600 mostly poor and African American men, women and children.

The concept of race has been widely propagated since Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae in 1735. The father of modern taxonomy proposed four distinct racial groups for human beings – American, European, Asian and African – that encompassed not only physical characteristics and geographic origin, but also personality traits, skills and abilities. This classification has become institutionalized with little awareness that the variable “race” is not actually a biological phenomenon: there is more genetic variation within these racial groups than across them. Rather, the notion of race is a social construct.