Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson and Racial Inequality

When I first saw the pictures of Ferguson I thought the article was about something happening over seas, in another country, where things like full combat gear, vehicles with artillery tripods mounted to the top, and tear gas are needed.

Then I realized it was Missouri.  (image from http://www.utsandiego.com)

I haven't been posting links to articles on Ferguson to Facebook or Twitter.  I haven't posted here until now, but I have been reading everything I can about it, and the more I read the more heartbroken I become, and not just over the events happening in Ferguson, but over the bigger picture of racial inequality in America. 

There is a fundamental problem in the United States.  We want to pretend everyone is equal, that we all have the same opportunity to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and make something of ourselves.  But there are these barriers of race and poverty that can simply no longer be ignored.

Study after study has found that people are treated differently in the United States.  When everything else is equal, black women with breast cancer are less likely to survive than white women [1].  Black mothers are twice as likely to have a still born child or a child who dies of SIDS than a white mother [2].  Black mothers are more likely to have preterm births than white mothers[2].  Black children are less likely to graduate from high school than white children[3].  Black men are more likely to go to prison for the exact same crime compared with white men[4].

When you neutralize the differences that come with income, education and geography, studies have found that race alone is a health disparity, or that you are less likely to be healthy, simply because of the color of your skin[4].  If fact, black men who have graduated college have the same health outcomes as white men who dropped out of high school[4].  And while you may want to argue that this could be due to genetics, that possibly the black population is just more likely to die of heart disease or cancer, to have a shorter life expectancy, that is in fact not the case.  Because when you begin comparing first generation black Americans, those people who have more recently come to our county and have dark skin, their rates are exactly the same as the white American population[4].  It is not the genetics behind the color of skin that is causing these issues, it is our culture.

Talking about race as a middle class white woman feels awkward.  It does.  And that is why so many people who really do care continue to stay quiet.  It's hard.  It's awkward.  It's saying that white people who say "I just don't see color" is bullshit.  We all see color. We have been raised in a world that focuses on color. But there is a huge difference in embracing our differences and wanting everyone to be treated equally vs. pretending a problem doesn't exist.

It's easy to say "I don't see color".  It's harder to say "I do.  But it makes no difference to me on how I feel about you.  I want to stand beside you and fight for your rights to be treated exactly as I would be treated.  For your son to be treated exactly as my son would be treated. For my niece to be treated exactly how my son is treated."

I hope things in Ferguson calm down soon.  I fear for the safety of the citizens and the police officers.  But I hope as the dust a tear gas settle then our nation can actually begin the hard conversations on how do we change.  Because what we have been doing is clearly not working and all of our children deserve better.

*The majority of these facts I have learned through the process of receiving my MPH which included a class on racial and ethnic disparities, but here are a list of references if you are interested:
  1. Hershman D, McBride R, Jacobson JS, et al. Racial disparities in treatment and survival among women with early-stage breast cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. Sep 2005;23(27):6639-6646 
  2.  Chen HY, Chauhan SP, Rankins NC, Ananth CV, Siddiqui DS, Vintzileos AM. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Infant Mortality in the United States: The Role of Gestational Age. Am. J. Perinatol. Jun 2013;30(6):469-475.
  3. Heckman JJ, LaFontaine PA. The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels. Rev. Econ. Stat. May 2010;92(2):244-262. 
  4. Hofrichter R., Bhatia, R. (Eds) Tackling Health Inequalities through Public Health Practice: Theory to Action Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-534314-4 

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