Thursday, April 12, 2012

Slavery, Segregation, Racism at the root of race-based health disparities in the U.S.

SLAVERY, SEGREGATION, RACISM  at the root of race-based HEALTH-DISPARITIES in the U.S.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story 
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I wrote a blog post on race-based health disparities entailing how blacks and other non-white groups continue to suffer disproportionately from almost every disease and illness imaginable. This blog post will shed light on how history, mainly the institution of slavery has contributed to race-based health disparities visible within the black community today. 

This is a sensitive topic, but as a Black woman (Afro-Caribbean) and upcoming professional in the health field, I wanted to provide sound research to dispel some myths that state black people do not care about their health, or that these disparities are solely a result of personal health behaviors, because that is just FALSE.

It is simply FALSE to say that people of color don’t care about their health. Do we really think that people prefer sickness as opposed to being happy and healthy?! No. Therefore, to direct assault on an entire group of people, is to ignore the institution of slavery and other acts of oppression, colonization, and exclusion that have been supported by governments here in the U.S. and around the world.

I think it is important to state that American politics, laws, policies and programs did not exist to serve the interests of everyone, especially that of Black folk. Slavery created a power dynamic that resulted in Black individuals experiencing high levels of oppression and exclusion that’s has a direct impact on socioeconomic status, health, and overall well-being.

To engage in debates and discussions on race based health disparities, we must get at the root cause of the issue and we must acknowledge and highlight slavery, because health disparities did not happen overnight. Disparities in health and health care have existed for centuries. Black people in the U.S. and in the diaspora have experienced poorer health than other groups from the very beginning of slavery. I think it’s important to put health disparities in this historical context that many researchers and academia seem to never mention.

The end of slavery was followed by the Reconstruction Era and the “Jim Crow’ period. During this period, laws limited and prohibited Black people from living. They could not exercise their voting rights and were reduced to substandard education, employment, and healthcare. Segregation in health care played a significant role in the health status of American Blacks. Black hospitals and nurse training schools existed in the 1920s, because black people experienced pervasive racism and discrimination in white hospitals at the time. In the early part of the C.20th, medical schools for Black doctors were created, because most existing medical schools would not admit Black students.

In 1932, 399 Black men thought they were being treated for syphilis, only to realize that 40 years later, that they part of an immoral experiment by the United States Public Health Service to examine how syphilis run its course if left untreated. They were never told that they were infected with syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue. The men were intentionally not treated and were refused medication to cure this disease even when a cure was found for it. As a result, they infected their wives and wives then infected their children upon birth. In 1947, when the story was leaked to the media, the Public Health Service were forced to stop, but by that time dozens of the men had died, and many wives and children had been infected. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is a prime example as to why Blacks are distrustful of health professionals and institutions. 

So, please let’s not pretend that health status of Black people in this country is the fault of their own, because it is NOT. The systems put in place during and after slavery has created opportunities where Black individuals are disproportionately affected by illness and diseases in comparison to other racial groups, especially their White counterparts. The reasons for race-based health disparities have been documented by many researchers in the U.S., and they all stem from the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, discrimination, and racism.  It is necessary to examine and bring into context the root causes of those disparities that we see so clearly today. Unfortunately, these health disparities will continue to threaten and hamper efforts to improve the nation’s health if they are not addressed.

These are my thoughts.


Zinn, H. (1980). A people’s history of the United States covering the period 1945-60. New York: Harper & Row publishers, 1980.