Teach-In: “The Color of Health: Disparities, Invisibilities, Bias. Antiblackness as a Public Health Crisis”

Liberate the Plate - Alexis Cooke

Continuing the day’s theme of health on February 9, 2016, Teni Adewumi and Alexis Cooke presented urgent facts regarding public health and racial disparities. They begun by presenting a host of striking statistics: Black people tend to die earlier than white people, people of color tend to be more affected by health problems, two thirds of primary care doctors express bias towards black people – and many more. The central question of these facts then becomes determining the cause: what role does institutional racism play in facilitating this public health crisis?

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The discussion turned to parsing the difference between racial disparities and racial differences regarding health. Over 75% of African Americans are said to be lactose intolerant. This is said to be an issue of genetics – cattle were not able to thrive in parts of the African continent due to geographical particularities and many Africans who were enslaved and taken to the Americas never became genetically accustomed to digesting dairy. This type of racial health problem is said to be a difference in this way because it is a genetic predisposition. A disparity, on the other hand, is avoidable and unjust.

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Disparities are stimulated due to lack of resources and institutional neglect of people due to race.  One horrifyingly prevalent disparity is the de-legitimization of black illness.  Perhaps because of stereotypes or implicit bias, there exists a disbelief in black pain that further limits the heath care black people may receive. A story was told of a coworker of one of the facilitators where the coworker had sickle cell anemia and was doubled over in pain, but hospital staff still boldly asserted that the person was “not in pain”.

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Just recently in Florida, footage was released of a Black woman being escorted out of a hospital despite complaining of serious chest pain. She died in the hospital parking lot of a pulmonary embolism and received no assistance. Another ramification of this de-legitimization is fewer prescriptions of medication offered to black people. This “racial empathy gap” has further linkage to police brutality where police disbelieve and harm black people with the idea that they do not feel pain.

Smaller discussions delved deeper into other issues of public health and racism. Trauma and health deserts remain a serious impediment for people of color to receive proper health care. A health desert is a region that lacks medical facilities or trauma centers in close proximity. As a result, victims of trauma cannot receive immediate attention and often die in transit to a hospital. These deserts tend to exist predominately in black and brown neighborhoods. Also discussed were increasing costs of health care.

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The cost of ambulance fees, co-payments even with insurance, and emergency room fees are often unmanageable for low income families and further de-incentivize people of color from seeking help from these institutions. Medical cannabis usage is trumped as a step to provide health benefits using the plant and to curb the incarceration of black and brown people for possession. We find, however, that even when cannabis is legalized, those in prison for cannabis charges aren’t released, the felony charges are not expunged, and that black and brown people continue to be disproportionately stopped for updated cannabis crimes like DUIs.

This workshop advocated for critical race praxis for those in the health care field to put an end to these disparities. We need to center black people in our study and practice of health. The more we question and expose these disparities, the more progress we can make in furthering both health care and racial equity.


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