Being “healthy” isn’t always a choice in the United States. In fact, whether one has access to healthcare, or is exposed to environmental hazards, often depends on factors outside of one’s control. Due to systemic racism and implicit bias, Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) experience larger barriers to health than their white peers. What can be done to close this health gap? Join us in rethinking disparity in healthcare in the U.S.
Disparity in Healthcare in the U.S.
BIPOC experience higher rates of chronic illness, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, and overall poorer mental and physical health than white people. Disparities such as these are not a natural consequence of society, but the consequence of deliberate systemic racism.
Lead in the Water: Flint, Michigan
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a majority-Black city with 40 percent of people living below the poverty line, is a clear example of systemic, health-related racism at play.
When residents complained about the water quality, which contained alarming and detrimental levels of lead, the city routinely dismissed their concerns.
When lead is ingested in the body, it is harmful to children and pregnant women, causing mental retardation, behavioral issues, and learning disabilities. Lead and other harmful minerals are usually monitored and filtered out by government-sanctioned treatment facilities. However, in the case of Flint, the water quality was all but neglected. As one resident pointed out, “If this was in a white area, in a rich area, there would have been something done. We know the truth.”
Asbestos in the Baby Powder: Johnson & Johnson
In another example, the health of Black women was intentionally targeted to increase company profits. For at least 50 years, Johnson & Johnson knew that asbestos was in its talc products, including its baby powder. As public concerns grew, the company began ad campaigns specifically targeting Black, Latinx, and overweight women.
Due to the intentional acts by the company, thousands of Black women developed ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, and countless babies inhaled asbestos as they grew up. While the product is no longer being sold in the U.S., Johnson & Johnson continues to sell the cancer-causing product worldwide.
Disproportionately Affected: COVID-19 Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., it became clear that Black Indigenous People of Color were disproportionately affected and killed by the virus. Despite this, as of press time, BIPOC were less vaccinated than white people. Disparities in vaccination numbers are due to longstanding inequities that make access to healthcare more difficult.
Applying An Intersectional Lens to Disparities
No discussion of disparities in health care is complete without an intersectional lens. It’s important to remember that Black women experience racism, discrimination, and sexism on levels not experienced by white women or Black men. Thus, their experience is unique and unparalleled by either group.
Not Believed by Doctors
In healthcare, one example of this unique racism is evident in the way Black women can be treated by doctors. Black women are often caught between two stereotypes: being immune to pain due to their race, and hysterical about pain due to their gender. The result? Many Black women recount that their pain is often dismissed by doctors.
TEDxMileHigh Speaker and Epidemiologist Dr. Margot Gage Witvliet knows this first hand. When she caught COVID-19 in March 2020 and did not recover, doctor after doctor refused to listen to her or believe her symptoms. It turns out, Dr. Witvliet was one of the first people to experience “Long-Haul COVID.” Learn more about Dr. Witvliet’s experience by watching her TEDx talk below.
The Black Maternal Mortality Crisis
Another intersectional example of healthcare disparity is seen in the black maternal mortality crisis. In the U.S., Black women are three times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth. This issue has been ongoing for generations, yet has only somewhat recently experienced national attention. Despite media coverage, the disparities persist.
Access to Abortion – Senate Bill 8
When Senate Bill 8 went into effect on September 1, 2021, in Texas, it especially threatened the lives of Black women.
Senate Bill 8 (SB8) makes it close to impossible for women in Texas to access abortion services. The bill bans abortions in Texas after six weeks, which is before most women even know that they are pregnant. The bill makes no exceptions for pregnancy due to sexual abuse, rape, incest, or fetal anomaly diagnoses. As of press time, women’s rights organizations are in court to challenge this law.
In Texas specifically, Black women account for 11 percent of live births, but 31 percent of maternal deaths. Thus, anti-abortion legislation is not only a women’s rights issue—it’s a race issue.
Where To Go From Here
Disparity and racism throughout healthcare aren’t new issues. In fact, there are several Black-run grassroots organizations fighting these inequalities. It’s important to follow the lead of Black women who are already paving the way for change in their lives and communities so that equal access to healthcare can be shared by all.
The Flaws of Corporate-Led Initiatives
Kimberly Seals Allers—founder of Irth—argues that as corporate leaders express interest in the efforts to end disparities in healthcare, such as the Black maternal mortality crisis, “there’s a real danger of perpetuating the same systems of oppression that have led to the Black maternal mortality crises simply being replicated in other fields.”
While some corporations are investing directly to Black women-led enterprises, the majority do not listen to or center Black women.
Ashlee Wisdom, CEO and co-founder of Health in Her Hue, describes the phenomenon pointedly, “When a large corporate entity is behind a solution, it puts existing, community-driven ventures at risk.” This, paired with the reality of our capitalist society, poses a threat to the success of grassroots organizations. If a corporation is competing against them, they can leverage their profits, stifle their competition, and edge out the very people they are supposed to be supporting and serving.
Black Women-Led Organizations
Delve into the following organizations to donate, learn more, and join the cause to end disparities in healthcare, mainly the Black maternal mortality crisis:
- Health In Her Hue is a digital platform connecting Black women and women of color to culturally competent healthcare providers, health content, and community. They reduce racial health disparities through technology, media, and community. Download it here.
- Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance. They center Black mamas to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice. They aim to change policy, cultivate research, advance care for Black women, and shift the culture.
- Irth (As in Birth, but without the B for Bias) is the only app where you can find prenatal, birthing, postpartum, and pediatric reviews of care from other Black and brown women. They help Black and brown women and birthing people have a more safe and empowered pregnancy and parenting experience.
- Black Women Birthing Justice (BWBJ) is a grass-roots collective out of Oakland, CA that are committed to transforming birthing experiences for Black women and birthing people. They do this by documenting Black/African American/African/Caribbean/multiracial women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, investigating factors contributing to positive pregnancy outcomes and postpartum physical and mental health. They also explore the impact of medicalization and medical access on Black women’s experiences of childbirth.
- Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization created by Black women to help protect and advance the health and wellness of Black women and girls. For over 38 years, they have been working for health equality for Black women.
When To Help and When To Support
When it comes to most activism, but especially disparities in healthcare, it is clear that thoughtless “help” can be harmful. As we rethink disparity in healthcare, we can support organizations that have already been doing this work for years. Rethink what is possible with us by joining us at Rethink. Register here.